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Winter Highlights at RSPB Minsmere

Written by Maddie Darrell on

Guest blog post by Ian Barthorpe, Marketing and Publicity Officer, RSPB, Suffolk Coast.

Photos l to r: Bittern by Jon Evans, Redhead Smew, Truxor at work. Photos supplied by RSPB Minsmere.

There may be no Springwatch cameras, and fewer human visitors, but that doesn’t mean life quietens down at RSPB Minsmere.

Far from it. The marshes are alive with hundreds of ducks, seeking the relatively mild weather of a UK winter, while flocks of tits, finches and thrushes roam around the woods.

Among the ducks, a winter favourite is always the gorgeous smew, a scarce visitor. The black and white drakes are simply stunning. As ever with ducks, the females are plainer, for better camouflage when nesting. However, with smew they are still striking birds, with white cheeks and a chestnut cap that earns them the nickname of redheads. Just one has been seen so far this year, but more may arrive in February if the temperatures drop.

Winter is also a good time to see Minsmere’s star species. Marsh harriers may spend the day hunting over nearby fields, but return from mid afternoon to roost in the reedbed. Bitterns can be spotted wandering around in front of Island Mere or Bittern Hides, often with other elusive species such as snipe, water rail or water pipit. Bearded tits search for fallen seeds at the reedbed edge, while otter sightings peak in the shorter days of the year.

Spring returns early too, with great spotted woodpeckers already drumming to proclaim their territories. Birdsong increases as February progresses, and bitterns may start to boom towards the end of the month. The first avocets should begin to return to the Scrape too.

Winter is also the time for major habitat management work to be completed before the breeding season gets underway. Patches of reed are cut to maintain areas of open water, and a varied structure of reed growth. Drier areas are cut and raked by hand, while a special amphibious reed-cutting machine has been used to clear larger areas of wet reedbed.

One of the most obvious work areas this winter has been the replacement of the aging fence protecting ground-nesting birds on the Scrape. As seen on Springwatch, this was no longer keeping predators such as foxes and badgers out, leading to poor breeding success for avocets, gulls and terns.

Before installing the new, higher specification electric fence, a low bank has been built around much of the Scrape so that the fence can sit on dry ground. This will help wardens to keep it clear of encroaching vegetation, reducing the likelihood of predators getting through.

Other work goes on unseen, in Dunwich Forest or on the heaths. We’re working with the Forestry Commission to return cleared areas in Dunwich Forest to its former heathland glory, work which will benefit adders, woodlarks, nightjars and many insects. Some of this work is done by community work parties. Anyone interested in volunteering with these work parties should email: Minsmere@rspb.org.uk.

For further information about visiting Minsmere call 01728 648281 or email Minsmere@rspb.org.uk. To keep up with the latest news from Minsmere you can follow us on Twitter @RSPBMinsmere or like the RSPBSuffolk Facebook page.

To view all of Suffolk Secrets' holiday cottages that are located within 3.5 miles of RSPB Minsmere, click here and don't forget that all of our customers receive a “2 for 1 or kids go free” Minsmere voucher* just before the start of their self-catering stay. *(Valid until 31 December 2015, terms and conditions apply).

Maddie Darrell

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