RSPB Minsmere, Saxmundham (Suffolk, UK)

The lifting of some lockdown restrictions (for the second/third time - I have lost count) here in the UK meant that staycations made a rapid return. I love living and working in London but it is always a pleasure to get out of the "big smoke" to experience some country air every now and then. For our short trip away recently we visited the UK's east coast, specifically the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. It was great to feel a sea breeze and just to experience the sense of being on 'holiday' again, given that it was a concept that all but disappeared from our lives for six months or so.


Whilst away we took a day trip to a nearby RSPB reserve, one that I had read lots about but never been to before, and it turned out to be a superb place to take the camera. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB for short) is a charitable organisation that manage a number of reserves throughout the UK, most of which have a significant role to play in bird conservation efforts. Minsmere is no different, with its mixture of grassland, woodland and wetland habitats providing an emphasis on encouraging nationally uncommon breeding species such as the bittern, marsh harrier and nightingale.


Before becoming a nature reserve, the area was the site of an ancient abbey. The marshes were reclaimed as farmland in the 19th century, but were then re-flooded during World War II as a protection against possible invasion. Military defences, including a lengthy line of tank traps along the beach front, can be found throughout the reserve. The reserve was obtained in 1947 before being officially purchased in 1977.


The star of the show found here is the bittern. These secretive birds from the heron family are very uncommon throughout the UK but Minsmere has become one, of a small number of UK sites, where this birds breed. In 2019 eight breeding males were recorded at Minsmere but they are extremely difficult to spot; their blotchy brown plumage and shorter stature mean they are incredibly well camouflaged amongst the reeds that they like to reside within.


We were extremely lucky to spot a bittern in flight from one of the reserve hides. Whilst I did manage a few photographs, none of these were that impressive, but it was still an exhilarating feeling to spot a bird that many spend a lifetime trying to locate.


Despite the lack of high-quality bittern photography, I did manage some photographs of the reserves other residents that I thought it might be worth sharing.

 

I was surprised at the range of different species that were so easily viewed at Minsmere but this certainly explained why the area is so popular within the bird watching community. Alongside the elusive bittern we saw a number of hen harriers circling overhead as well as a few, easier to photograph species.

Grey Heron (Canon EOS 1200D, Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary @ 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1000, iso 200)

The grey heron is a bird that has become increasingly common here in London and so it was weird for me to spot one so close to the ocean. Alongside a few heron sightings we also spotted a whole host of little egrets. These strikingly bright white members of the heron family were first spotted in the UK in 1989 and have since formed increasingly large populations on the east and south coasts of England.


Minsmere is also home to a number of seabirds, some of whom use the area as a breeding ground. Black-headed gulls are another species that I have become used to seeing in London but not quite in the sheer numbers found here. The gulls use the wetland areas of the reserve as a breeding site and I was surprised to learn that the birds build their nests on the ground as opposed to in trees or on cliff faces.


There was also a healthy population of common terns flying through the air. These migratory birds visit the UK during our summer months to breed before then departing in September.

Common Tern (Canon EOS 1200D, Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary @ 226mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, iso 200)

After the breeding season, the terns migrate south to spend their winter along the coasts of the tropics and the southern hemisphere in areas including Africa, South America and South-east Asia. They have one of the longest migrations of all birds, with an average round trip of 35,000km each year. I have actually seen these terns in Richmond Park before but this image is the best I have ever taken of this species. I was particularly pleased with it given that my ability to take images of birds in flight is somewhat lacking and definitely not a speciality of mine.


There were also a wide range of geese species on show, some of which I had never seen in the wild before. There were a number of greylag geese, another species that is quite common here in London, but they were surrounded by a number of bar-headed geese and barnacle geese. The later is a species that spends the summer months in the North Atlantic, on Greenland or in northern Russia. They then migrate, usually to areas of Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands where they spend the winter.

Barnacle Goose (Canon EOS 1200D, Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary @ 600mm, f/10, 1/800, iso 400)

Minsmere is unique in the sense that you can see this species of goose all year round. A small population of barnacle geese, formed initially by escapees from private collections or zoos, have taken up residence on the east coast of England and, unlike their species counterparts, tend to stay where they are for the entire year without migrating.


There were a number of wading birds also present. This is where my personal bird identification skills become a bit lacklustre as this lineage of the birds is one that is pretty much non-existent within London. There were a number of oystercatchers, lapwings and avocets that could easily be seen from the hides but the one bird that I really struggled to identify was this black-tailed godwit. I took the photograph below from one of the hides and then, retrospectively, tried to identify it. At first I thought it might have been a snipe but, following some internet search help and some perusing through the one bird book I own, I was able to decide that it was most likely a black-tailed godwit.


These fairly large wading birds have bright orangey-brown chests and bellies in the summer, but in winter they fade to a more greyish-brown colour. They are listed as a schedule 1 protected species in the UK and are listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List following extensive hunting throughout their migratory range. In the UK, these birds are usually found in winter but their are small resident populations found throughout the country, including here in Minsmere.

Black-tailed Godwit (Canon EOS 1200D, Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary @ 600mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, iso 200)
 

Not only was it a lovely feeling to be out of London for a while but RSPB Minsmere was a real surprise in terms of how easy it was to view a number of different bird species that I would not be able to find in my home city. Shout out to my mother for recommending it as a place to visit.


The highlight was no doubt spotting a bittern, despite the lack of acceptable photographs of it, but I really enjoyed being able to work with some new species. If you ever happen to be in the Suffolk area I highly recommend a trip to Minsmere but remember your binoculars and/or camera.


RSPB Minsmere: https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/minsmere/

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