Minsmere - a special place

RSPB publicity and marketing officer IAN BARTHORPE feels he has the best job in the world - telling everyone just how special Minsmere is.To mark the reserve's 60th anniversary he has written this personal feature on what the reserve means to him.

RSPB publicity and marketing officer IAN BARTHORPE feels he has the best job in the world - telling everyone just how special Minsmere is.

To mark the reserve's 60th anniversary he has written this personal feature on what the reserve means to him.

AS a young birdwatcher growing up in Shropshire, I often dreamed of visiting RSPB Minsmere nature reserve. I'd read about Minsmere and knew it was the best place to see birds like avocets, bitterns and marsh harriers, and I wanted to visit.

I had become a junior member of the RSPB at Christmas 1977, and quickly became hooked on birdwatching. Ten later I finally persuaded my parents to take me to Minsmere, although surprisingly, I actually remember very little about that first visit.

In 1990, I came back, this time as a volunteer, and I knew from that moment that I wanted to work at Minsmere. In January 2003, I finally got my chance.

So what makes Minsmere so special? Anyone who knows Minsmere well will have stories to tell about special birds and special moments. The sheer variety of species and habitats ensures you never really know what you'll see next.

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Here are just a few of my special moments from Minsmere.

I will never forget my first ever bittern. Sitting in Island Mere Hide as a volunteer in 1990 carrying out marsh harrier monitoring, I noticed a “funny-looking heron” flying towards me.

It took several seconds to register that it was brown, streaky and shorter necked than a grey heron. They really did exist after all.

Years later, I had an unforgettable encounter with bitterns at Minsmere. I was sat in Bittern Hide at first light while leading a dawn chorus walk when, looking through my binoculars, I saw the amazing sight of four bitterns flying together.

They were soon joined by two more, with at least two more booming at the same time. Incredible! We could see or hear about one in eight of the bitterns in the UK at the time.

Marsh harriers are another favourite. Trips to East Anglia were memorable for seeing these stunning birds of prey. I still marvel at their agility and beauty whenever I watch them hunting, yet now I can sometimes become almost blasé: “it's just another harrier.”

I have to remind myself that for many visitors to Minsmere, seeing a marsh harrier is the highlight of their day. It's amazing to think only one pair remained in the UK the year I was born!

When I first visited Minsmere, breeding avocets were still confined to a few sites in East Anglia, moving to the southwest's estuaries in winter.

Now they are a common sight in Suffolk all year round, with about 100 pairs nesting at Minsmere, and up to 1000 on the Alde-Ore estuary in winter. Avocets are such elegant and entertaining birds that you never tire of watching them.

Minsmere's more than just birds though. Every time I cross the pond in what was the car park until twelve years ago, I pause and watch.

The pond was literally bubbling in March when the frogs and toads were mating. Later in the summer, I'll enjoy watching various dragonflies and damselflies hunting here.

Over the last few weeks, two water voles have been feeding on little platforms of vegetation just a few metres from the boardwalk.

They'll be there all summer. Elsewhere in the country it's increasingly difficult to see these beautiful rodents made famous by Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows.

Otters are shy and elusive, so any sighting is a bonus, and I've been lucky enough to see a few at Minsmere.

My favourite sighting was when two otters appeared at the edge of the ice in front of Island Mere Hide, playing for a while before ambitiously chasing a mute swan.

Just one more reason why Island Mere Hide is my absolute favourite place in England just to sit and chill.

The sights and sounds of Minsmere are so many I could go on forever. Being woken by a nightingale singing outside my window was special when I was volunteering here.

Listening to churring nightjars on the heath at dusk is always worthwhile. Or I could list some of the many rarities I've seen over the years. Or how about the coconut-scented smell of gorse drifting over the heath on a summer day? Then there's the autumn red deer rut…

But it's not just the wildlife that makes Minsmere special. The people play a part too. We have a superb team of volunteers here without whom RSPB Minsmere nature reserve could not run successfully.

Their tremendous hard work encompasses all aspects of our work: habitat management, survey work, retail and catering, leading guided walks and meeting visitors at the reception desk.

And of course there are the visitors. More than 100,000 people visited Minsmere last year, attracted by the huge range of wildlife and beautiful scenery.

For many, this will have been their first visit to an RSPB nature reserve. Seeing the smiles on their faces after spotting their first ever bittern, avocet or marsh harrier is one of the most rewarding aspects of working here. It helps remind us what a superb place Minsmere is.

I look forward to many more years at Minsmere with great anticipation of what changes we might see and what new species might arrive. Happy 60th birthday Minsmere! Here's to the next 60.

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