Minsmere - a haven for rare birds

NATURE reserves are not all natural - they require a significant amount of management to provide the best possible habitat for bird lives.At Minsmere staff have created a haven which is home to some of the rarest birds in Britain, birds which attract visitors from across the country.

NATURE reserves are not all natural - they require a significant amount of management to provide the best possible habitat for bird lives.

At Minsmere staff have created a haven which is home to some of the rarest birds in Britain, birds which attract visitors from across the country.

Two species in particular compete for the accolade of being the symbol of Minsmere.

Avocets are the real reason Minsmere has become such a magnet for birdwatchers and naturalists over the last 60 years.

It was the arrival of the first avocets on the Minsmere marshes in 1947 that alerted bosses at the RSPB that there was something special about this piece of the Suffolk coastline.

Once they returned in the early 1960s they soon became well-established in the reserve and have since spread along the east coast.

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Visitors to Minsmere between March and October cannot fail to see these attractive black and white birds as they scythe through the water with the distinctive upturned bills.

The other bird that has become synonymous with Minsmere over recent years is the bittern whose booming tones can now be heard over the reedbeds at this time of the year.

Bitterns were all but wiped out in Britain during the second half of the 20th century, and even today their numbers are very small.

Minsmere is home to an estimated 30 per cent of the British population - last year nine males and eight nesting females were recorded on the reserve.

Anyone visiting Minsmere at this time of the year can expect to hear the distinctive boom of this bird in the reedbirds near the bittern or Island Mere hides - but you will be extremely lucky to see one of these reclusive birds.

They hide in the reeds and can usually only be seen when flying between areas of reedbed.

While avocets and bitterns are the star species at Minsmere, there are many other species that are distinctive to the reserve.

Marsh harriers are an impressive bird of prey that are a feature of the reserve - and a real success story for the conservation work at Minsmere.

The became extinct in Britain in the 1920s, but later returned although never really re-established themselves in great numbers.

Back in 1971 there was just one pair in the country - at Minsmere - now there are 350 across Britain including a substantial colony on the Suffolk coast. Minsmere itself now has 12 nests.

Visit the hides overlooking the reedbeds between April and October and you are guaranteed to see these graceful birds.

Another attractive bird that relies on the reedbeds is the bearded tit - although it is much smaller and more difficult to see than some residents!

It suffered in the cold winters of the 1940s and 1950s, but over the last half century it has recovered at Minsmere which is now home to a stable population of these birds.

The scrape is home to thousands of waders and seabirds during the year.

It is split into three distinct lagoons with salt, brackish and clear water attracting different birds looking for different types of crustacean and plant.

It's often not easy to distinguish one wader from another - but there are often volunteers on hand in the hides to point out the differences.

It was only when I was being shown around by Ian Barthorpe that I was finally able to tell the difference between a godwit and a redshank on the other side of the lagoon.

The reserve is probably at its best between April and June as migrants arrive to nest and bring up their young although there is always something to see here.

During the winter it is home to thousands of wintering migrants, especially waterfowl, who raise their young high in the arctic.

For a brief period in March/April it is possible to see both winter and summer migrants in some parts of the reserve - although by now most winter migrants have completed their journeys to their summer breeding areas.

WHILE Minsmere is famous for the scrape and the reedbeds, it also offers a wide variety of other habitats which attract a wide variety of birds.

Broadleafed woodland attracts thousands of songbirds from common garden birds like blue tits and blackbirds to rarer species like treecreeper and nuthatch.

Further up the coast is the National Trust-owned Dunwich Heath, and the heathland extends into Minsmere reserve providing home for specialist birds like nightjars and, increasingly, dartford warblers.

A plantation of conifers is maturing and already they are providing habitats for birds and other creatures which rely on them.

There are also real rarities that show up from time to time.

Ospreys have been seen using the reserve during the migration between Scotland and north Africa and spoonbills regularly put in an appearance at the reserve.

Possibly the most exotic birds to turn up there have been occasional flamingos - but they are not migrants from Africa or South America blown off course but escapees from private collections.

MINSMERE is world famous for the birds it attracts, but in fact the reserve is vital to many other species which have made it their home over the last 60 years.

Some are large and unmissable if you come across them. The bird reserve is at the centre of the range of the largest wild herd of Britain's largest land mammal, the red deer, in England.

Hundreds of rabbits have made their homes in the heathland that is part of the reserve and they in turn provide food for foxes that live in and around the reserve.

It is a vital habitat for the endangered water vole - you might even see them on the pond next to the visitor centre - and the reserve was a key location for the reintroduction of otters into the wild during the 1980s and 1990s.

Minsmere how has a healthy population of these attractive mammals.

When going around the reserve it is natural to look into the sky or across to the reedbeds or pools of water - but sometimes it is good to look at your feet. It is easy to put a foot wrong and step on one of the lizards or snakes who live on the reserve.

Less easily recognised - except to the experts - is the phenomenal range of insects including butterflies and moths which live on the reserve.

They play a vital role in the food chain at Minsmere, they are eaten by many of the migratory birds who spend their summers on the Suffolk coast.

Ian Barthorpe from the RSPB said: “We are very aware of the importance of Minsmere for a large number of species - and how they interact with each other.

“There are more than 1,000 species of moths that have been identified here. There are also many species of butterflies including rarities like the silver studded blue for which this is an absolutely vital habitat.”

The new pond which was created in the former car park has a large population of amphibians, including frogs, toads and newts and is a breeding ground for insects which provide them with food.

Mr Barthorpe said: “We have not put fish in the pond because they would eat the spawn but some fish eggs do get taken there on the feet of birds that land there.

“We have introduced a small number of coarse fish into the ponds around the reedbeds to provided a kick-start to the population to provide food for the birds that use the area, especially the bitterns.”