A Friday at Minsmere

Minsmere is one the RSPB’s premier reserves and holds a special place as the home of the avocet, the totemic emblem of the RSPB. It sits on the Suffolk coast just north of the Sizewell Nuclear Power Station, full face to the North Sea with a short shingle beach and dunes as scant protection.

Avocet

During World War II the areas grazed marsh was feared to present a risk as a point of invasion so the area was flooded and reed-marshes were established, both here and elsewhere along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast. This became a fortuitous decision and a landmark moment for Britain’s birds as it heralded the return of the avocet from where they had been extinct since the 19th Century. In 1947 the first birds were seen to have returned and commenced breeding. In response, in the same year and in complete secrecy (the project and birds were codenamed ‘Zebra‘) the first reserve was established when the RSPB leased 1500 acres and since then surrounding land has been added to the protected area. The early successes multiplied and there are now estimated to be approaching 900 UK breeding pairs and 3,500 overwintering birds – one of the landmark success stories of British conservation.

I have visited Minsmere before, a two hour drive from my home in Hertfordshire. I don’t anticipate much of a holiday this summer due to work commitments, so decided to treat myself to a day visiting the reserve. I arrived just before noon and immediately set off for the coast, stirred by the cacophony of noise rising from the scrapes and lagoons, great clouds of gulls and waders swirling above the pools and rising dramatically in alarm as one of the resident marsh harriers made a pass. I reached the sea and watched common terns diving off-shore before returning across the short course shingle beach and along the reserve boundary path.

Common Tern

The next port of call was the East Hide with it’s great open views across the flooded scrapes. Black Headed Gulls were the most common species, interspersed with Common Terns and further off the stunning sight of Ruffs, paddling with the other waders, the Greenshank and Redshank. Further off, a couple of Oystercatchers were resting on a sandbank. Thankfully close to the hide my photographic objective was feeding – the bold black and white of the Avocet. One adult accompanied by a youngster was feeding in muddy shallows 30 or so metres away, employing the side to side skimming motion with it’s upcurved beak sieving shrimp and other morsels from the water.

Whilst watching them I was amused by the antics of the black-headed gulls with their chocolate brown face masks and bowing territorial displays and squabbles.

Black Headed Gull
Back to the beach now and I walked towards the huge dome of Sizewell B, its modernist shape incongruous in the natural landscape, the large white dome shimmering in the afternoon heat. To my left  a fenced off area of beach indicated off-site nesting, birds being no respecter of boundaries, whether they are to their benefit or not. I carefully moved forward and spotted a ringed plover, clearly still on the nest, and further on a flock of little terns with their yellow beaks and white brows huddled by the surf, then lifting and calling as one as the peeled left and right in unison along the breaker line. 

Ringed Plover
The shingle beach and its exposed position attact specialist flora. Spits and spots of green and yellow vegetation dotted the sea’s boundary, closer inspection revealing yellow horned poppy and sea kale interspersed with low clumps of biting stonecrop. These three plants employ different strategies to survive in the extreme and brutal conditions. 
Sea kale and yellow horned poppy are pioneer species – the kale sends down a long tap root to seek out rainwater deep below ground and its thick grey green leaves have a waxy surface to prevent water loss. The yellow horned poppy also has long roots with hairy leaves evolved with water conservation in mind. The biting stonecrop lies low to the surface to reduce its exposure, has succulent leaves and sends out a mat of fibrous roots that bind the shingle together. It is also known as wall-pepper due to its taste. Flora Britannica also tells me that it grows on pavements and also on roofs and has the longest vernacular British name – ‘welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk’ which I assume would continue  … as to not recognise your house with the bright yellow flowers all over the roof! 

Sea Kale & Biting Stonecrop
Yellow Horned Poppy
On past the Sluice and back in-land now, a Little Egret and a flock of starlings in the wet field to my left on the edges of the reed-beds which are home to another Minsmere success story, the Bittern. Next stop was the South hide and more views of avocets, gulls and common terns – deeper lagoons and yellow-brown sandbanks providing a different habitat to the scrapes to the east.

Back now to the visitor centre for coffee and bread pudding. I sat in the sun watching the sand martins swoop back and forth to feed their young who now poked heads out of the trogladyte dwellings on the sand cliff below, accompanied by a family of magpies, the youngsters giving the impression of gangly teenagers, eager for freedom but happy to take handouts from mum!
My final stop before the journey home was a look around the pond, catching sight of an azure blue damselfly and the resting black tailed skimmer dragonfly, prostrate on the sandy pond edge. A super day with some nice pictures to bring back the memories and tempt me back to see more – the chance sighting of a spoonbill or bittern perhaps? Only if I’m very lucky!
juvenile Magpie

Sand Martins
Black Tailed Skimmer

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