Minsmere: 1,000 hectares of nature reserve managed by the Royal Society for Protection of Birds. A mosaic of habitats from woodland and open grassland which gently slopes to extensive areas of rustling reed beds and marsh, opening out into pools and shallow coastal lagoons with exposed areas of mud, to a shingle beach onto which rolls the murky waters of the North Sea.
On arriving at the reserve we first take a wander through the quiet woodland of beech and oak, listening to the typical suite of woodland birds, from chaffinch to great tit, and watching sun beams filter through the canopy. Out first stop is the Bittern Hide, where we climb up to the hide, like climbing into a magnificent tree house. Behind the hide the woodland extends up a slope and stretching out in front is an extensive sea of rustling reeds, a waving mass of long yellowish stems and a carpet of fresh green growth beneath. Marsh harriers glide silently over this sea of yellow and green, leisurely flapping their long wings, heads down, gazing intently at the reeds below, searching for their next meal. Gaps in the reeds reveal shimmering pools of water, whose surfaces ripple in the keen breeze that swishes through the surrounding reeds.
Moving on, our next step is to walk a circuit around the shallow coastal lagoons known as the Scape. The footpath is bordered by tall reeds, rushes, bushes and trees. Overhead there is a constant stream of black-headed gulls, common terns and sand martins. The vegetation itself is alive with dragonflies, like broad bodied and four-spotted chasers, and a new species for me the Norfolk hawker.
The Scrape itself is a hive of activity, hundreds of black-headed gulls nest on the little islands, their brownish grey fuzzy chicks constantly begging for food. Among them are the dapper Mediterranean gulls with their jet black heads and deep red bills. Sand martins swoop low over the water, before rising up and away, turning and dropping back down. A flock of over 400 black-tailed godwits, many of which are still wearing the russet red feathers of their breeding plumage, lift up as one, twirl and shift in one mass, before dropping back to feed in the shallow water. There are numerous avocets, with their bold black and white plumage, and up curved bill sweeping back and forth to find prey hidden in the murky water and mud. Avocets and Minsmere are like peas and corn, with this iconic bird returning to breed mere weeks after the RPSB signed on the dotted line to acquire the site in 1947. Other waders include dunlin, oystercatcher, redshank and ringed plover.
Ducks, including teal, shovelar, mallard and gadwall feed on the open water, heads submerged in search of food. Larger gulls prowl the little islands looking for easy pickings. Overhead there is a steady procession of common terns, heading out towards the sea and returning with silvery fish dangling from their bills. At the far end of the Scrape a small cluster of kittiwakes sit on a narrow spit of solid earth, with a couple more sitting on a narrow wooden plinth standing in the water. Next to them sits a juvenile gull. Many would have skipped past this one individual, and most of the birders in the hide did so, assuming it to be a regular lesser black-backed or herring gull. Lee’s keener eyes however, took a second look, noting the subtly longer legs and bill, and the sloping forehead. This young gull was in fact a Caspian gull. The confusion surrounding separating juvenile gulls, and the identification of gulls that not so long ago were all ‘herring gulls’ means it is not surprising that many birders conveniently skip over such individuals.
At the far end of the Scrape the lagoons and marshes meets a shingle bank which slopes up and then drops down to a small bit of sand before meeting the murky brown waters of the North Sea. The keen wind whips up frothy white caps amongst which the head of a grey seal appears and then disappears just as quickly. Along the shoreline the common terns feed, twisting mid-air and diving gracefully to catch fish that one wonders how on earth they can see in the muddy brown and frothy water. Along the top of the shingle bank haggard bushes provide shelter for small birds such as linnet and a wonderful male stonechat.
The walk along the North Wall, with reed bed and marsh extending out on either side, eventually brings us back to the grassland slopes near to the visitor centre. Here in an exposed cliff of sandstone rock we find the nesting site of the multitude of sand martins that we have seen all the way round the scrape. The pale sandy stone of this vertical face of rock has numerous small dark holes into which the sand martins disappear. Overhead the birds swoop in, dropping low and then sweeping up and into their chosen hole. A few moments later and a small brown head, with dark eyes and a white chin appears ever so briefly at the entrance before dropping down, out and then up in to the blue above once more. Off to catch more insects for the chicks that remain ensconced within the dark chambers, for now.
Have circumnavigated the scrape we return for one last gaze over the reed beds in the hope of catching up with another iconic bird, the bittern. Once more the marsh harriers glide over the tops of the waving reeds, and this time we are treated to the speed and agility of a hobby as it races in front of the hide aiming to catch dragonflies on the wing. Then finally as the sun starts to lower in the sky, softening the light over the reeds, a bird lifts up from the sea of reeds, flies with broad bowed wings for a brief stretch before dropping down and disappearing once more. Perhaps not the best view but a view none the less of a bittern.
And so our day at Minsmere comes to an end but to be sure we will be back.