Tuesday, 10 April 2012

East Anglia

An invitation to a friend's wedding gave us our first major travelling test with Sabina. The wedding was in Norwich and we knew that we had the chance to stay with some relatives and some friends, so it seemed like a good idea. Accordingly, we set out on a (yet another) fine spring morning soon after breakfast and trundled steadily along the M5 to Bristol, then east along the M4. We planned in a couple of breaks to allow for feeds and nappy changes - an immediate change from our usual routine - and motorway service stations being what they are, I planned the stops for some local wildlife trust reserves. So, we took our first break at Clouts Wood & Markham Banks, just south of Swindon.

This turned out to be a narrow valley with steep grassed slopes on the northern side - calcareous no less, so likely to be rather interesting from our point of view, but not much to be seen at this time of year - and a deciduous woodland on the southern slope. A small stream trickled gently along the valley floor, with occasional (and rather dry-looking) mires feeding in to it.

The sun continued to shine, the birds sang - though still no more migrants than we've already been hearing, so Chiffchaff and Blackcap joining the resident Goldfinches, Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens and Woodpigeons, and the woodland flora looked - rather unsurprisingly - much the same as we see round here: Bluebells, Ramsons, Primroses, Dog's-mercury and so on. Despite the relative familiarity of the site's wildlife, it was a near-idyllic spot to stop and break a boring journey. We walked the length of the valley to the scramble up the escarpment, to find a rather disappointing surround of intensive arable and dairy farming, and a newly-planted woodland shielding what looked like a set of industrial units. Can't have it all, I guess.

We headed back to the journey. Several Red Kites later, and a fairly rapid drive around the north side of the M25 and we were headed off up the A12 to the next break: Tiptree Heath, in Essex. By the time we left the car, Sabina was wailing and we were both getting a bit tired. Naomi parked - almost abandoned the car - and we scurried to the shade of a young oak to feed and change the beast. She wasn't really in the mood for food, just bored with lolling in the car-seat, so we walked briefly around part of the reserve - to the tune of a Willow Warbler - and slugged out the last few miles to Stoven for our first stop.

The evening passed in a bit of a haze: much family catch-up, a short walk around the local fields (many many Red-legged Partridges, a couple of Brown Hares and the odd Yellowhammer) and then a slide into sleep.

Next morning was my watershed moment: my first visit to the quintessential RSPB reserve: Minsmere. Naomi blithely promised Bitterns and all sorts of interesting goodies, so I was well primed for the event. The drive there took us along increasingly smaller roads (that looks wrong somehow, but decreasingly smaller really doesn't work. Incrementally? Whatever.) and over a tedious succession of speed-humps. Finally, however, we arrived and fed the baby in the carpark, as flocks of Black-headed Gulls squalled overhead against the blue. Amongst the squeals and squalls were a couple of deeper, more melodic calls: a pair of Mediterranean Gulls wheeling amongst the rest, wings shining-white compared to the duskier underwings of the Black-headed Gulls. Not a bad start.

Minsmere wasn't, to be honest, quite what I was expecting, but was still an interesting site. The main scrape was heaving with Black-headed Gulls, all settling in and pairing up for the breeding season, with a smattering of Avocets also beginning to pair up and a handful of ducks either fuelling up for their return to the north or perhaps thinking of breeding themselves: Shoveler busily patrolling the water with bills just submerged, Wigeon waddling across the grass tugging away at the new spring growth, and a handful of Mallards, Gadwall and a couple of Teal loafing quietly on the water's edge here and there.

The main scrape at Minsmere, from the hide along the shingle ridge.

Black-headed Gulls and a lone Greylag

Just to the south lies Sizewell nuclear power plant - it's amazing how nuclear sites tend to be associated with good birding spots; in part because of the warm water outfalls from the cooling process, but still.

We walked steadily around the reserve, never really hanging around too much as Sabina became fractious if we spent too long in one place. We were fortunate though, in that we managed to bump into not one, but two Bitterns, stealthily emerging from the reed fringe, and a party of Bearded Tits bouncing and pinging erratically in last year's reed growth nearby. Feeding time loomed for us all, so we retreated to the shade of the woodland fringe and spent a contemplative hour watching a pair each of Coal Tits and Great Tits investigating the knotholes in the trees, searching for suitable nest-sites. Spring looming indeed...

Spot the birdie

Creeping out of the reeds

OK, not the most up-close and personal pictures you'll ever see, but with a 105mm lens, I think it's not too bad an effort.

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