Winging it . . .
PUBLISHED: 11:15 07 October 2014 | UPDATED: 11:15 07 October 2014
Comedy writer, and self-confessed novice bird watcher, Jan Etherington makes her first visit to Minsmere and spots a celebrity. Now she's hooked
Forgive me, for I have sinned – the sins of omission.
I have lived on the Suffolk coast for two years and I have never visited the RSPB reserve at Minsmere.
I have skirted its borders, walking along the shore and I saw almost every corner of it, earlier this year, when BBC1 made it their Springwatch home. Visitors went up 50% after Springwatch, so why haven’t I been one of them?
I suppose because I’m not at all knowledgeable about wild birds. I recognise the big ones – swans, heron –
but what is the point of going, when I rarely know the name of what I’m looking at or listening to? Isn’t Minsmere for birders and twitchers?
(NB: A birder is an experienced bird watcher, whereas a twitcher is someone who travels huge distances to see a rare bird. ‘They are a bit like a trainspotter,’ I was told – by a birder). It was time to find out. I laced up my stout walking shoes, flung binoculars round my neck and followed the signs to Minsmere, sandwiched between Dunwich and Westleton.
As I walked into the visitor centre, publicity officer, Ian Barthorpe could barely contain his excitement, as he chalked up the news on the noticeboard. It read: ‘The collared pratincole is visible from the East Hide.’
I didn’t like to ask but he told me anyway. It is a bird. Should be in Spain. Very unusual to see it here.
Not only that but the Yellow Legged Tortoiseshell had been spotted in the warden’s garden. Hasn’t been seen here since 1953. Another rare . . ? No, not a bird. A butterfly.
Two airborne celebrities had arrived today! It was like discovering David Beckham and the Duchess of Cambridge wandering around your garden. I could hardly wait to set off. But where was I going?
Fortunately, Colin, one of the guides, handed me a simple map, with suggested routes around the reserve and a list of the birds and where they are likely to be.
The elusive bittern is the favourite and Minsmere has 10% of the national total of bitterns. This spring and summer, there were 12 nests here, with six broods of two chicks each.
“Best thing is to follow the Island Mere trail to the Bittern Hide and stay there for 20 minutes or so, just looking and listening. Then go to the Island Mere hide for a bit, then walk back and have lunch and then go round the Coast Trail to the East Hide.”
That’s what I wanted – practical advice.
Minsmere might be strictly for the birds, but I was surrounded by many winged wonders as I set off through dappled woodland. Clouds of butterflies on the buddleia plants and dragonflies above the water. Just being at Minsmere is a tonic but I was on a bittern hunt.
“You just missed one, flying over,” said a helpful birder, as I walked into the hide.
The call of the bittern is like the sound made when you blow over the top of an empty wine bottle. Distinctive. I have heard it on a dawn walk in Walberswick, but today the bitterns were more reclusive than usual. Since stardom on Springwatch, they’re probably rationing their public appearances.
I wandered on to the Island Mere Hide. Here, cormorants aplenty, glossy and black are hunched, like mourners, on the jetty, some drying their wings, looking like malevolent angels, loomed over the wading birds.
“You’ve just missed an otter,” another birder told me. “You can still see the trail.”
Sure enough, something substantial had moved through the water seconds before. If only I hadn’t stopped to take a stone out of my shoe. But I perked up when a marsh harrier flew over, huge and dark, with floppy, feathery wings.
“It’s a female,” someone said. How do you know?
“The male has a white underside and juveniles have orange heads.” Everybody is helpful here. You needn’t worry about not knowing the names of birds. Someone in every hide will know and they love sharing their expertise with novices. I envied them their knowledge and patience.
Looping back to the visitor centre and fortified by an excellent salad and great coffee, I headed off on the Coast Walk. The North Hide proved instructive.
“That’s a godwit. But I can’t tell from here whether it’s a bar-tail,” I heard one lady say. There were curlews and terns, a grey heron, avocets and lots of egrets. A spoonbill was here somewhere, but nobody saw it.
As I continued round to the East Hide, which is almost on the beach, I noticed banks of photographers, standing on the dunes zooming their lenses on to a small island on the East Scrape as it’s known.
The ‘flaparazzi’ were watching the birdie. Yes, the collared pratincole was perched on the sand.
“Have a look,” a very helpful birder offered me his long lens. “‘Oh, hang on,” he added. “A large gull has just sat down in front of him. See that little bit of brown under the gull’s wing?”
“Ermmm . . . I think so. Is that the pratin –?” Apparently, it was. Did it move? Once or twice. But the gull stayed put, like a heavyweight minder.
“It’s in the air!” the cry went up and cameras flashed. “Isn’t it exciting?”
“Yes,” I said. And I meant it, for I had seen a collared pratincole. Or a bit of it.
But I still haven’t seen the bittern. So I’ll be back – with a long lens.