Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Stranger Things

While I’ve been a warden at Holkham I have seen many wonderful things whether it's baby lapwings, thousands of pink footed geese in flight or beautiful meadows full of orchids. What I often don’t mention though is all the weird things I come across.

Wildlife is sometimes very strange. For instance, ant lions have so many forward facing spikes they can only move backwards, birds get lost and can appear 1000’s of miles off course and watching a crow ride on the back of a sheep while plucking out it’s wool never stops being entertaining. 
Human behaviour on the reserve can be equally strange, whether it's totem poles made of dead seagull skulls or sightings of a Dutch pirate ship or even planes attempting to land on the beach (not the cleverest idea). The bizarre things a warden has to deal with!

Pirate Ship!

Our most recent mystery was a report of 6 large dead birds washed onshore by the tide. We had reports they were Griffin Vultures or Lammergeiers, photos showed a huge bird with a bizarre feathered patterning. Eventually we managed to catch up with these mysterious feathered monsters.

Mysterious feathered corpse.

Some pondering and poking later we reached the conclusion that they were in fact, cockerels.  These large cock erels were far larger than anything we had ever seen before. It was their feet that gave the game away in the end, but what on earth were cockerels doing in the sea?!

Monday, 1 August 2016


This bizarre species of bird is famous for its elusive behaviour, strange look and characteristic call.

Bitterns are part of the Heron family but are smaller in stature and thick set with buff-brown plumage and dark streaks which allow them to blend in perfectly with the reeds through which they hunt. They are notoriously secretive and difficult to see but the breeding call can be heard from miles around. The Bitterns ‘boom’, as it is called,  is produced by the males and sounds like someone is blowing very loudly over a glass bottle! Each sound is unique and can be used to identify individual males.

Reedbed areas, which Bitterns rely on for feeding and nesting, were drained for agriculture. This, combined with persecution, led to their eventual extinction in 1885. Reedbed restoration has allowed the birds to slowly recover in number throughout Britain. Here at Holkham the re-wetting and re-profiling of land has created small areas of dense reedbed and clearing dykes has improved feeding opportunities.

A bittern disguises itself in the reeds

Bitterns are highly adapted to live in reeds. Their large feet are used to grasp reed stems allowing them to peer over the reed tops. They construct a nest platform in the thickest part of the reedbed close to the water level and the female will add material to the nest as the water level increases. Bitterns have a varied diet composing mainly of fish, amphibians and insects.

We are lucky enough to have a number of breeding pairs on the Holkham National Nature Reserve. The best place to see them is from the Overy sea wall or Washington hide. Due to their rare nature it is illegal to disturb Bitterns, even by accident. That is why we ask dog owners to keep their dogs under close control, or preferably on a lead.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Butterflies of Holkham

Holkham is renowned for many things such as rare habitats and unique wildlife but did you know that here at Holkham, the monitoring of butterflies along a transect route has been carried out every year since 1976 and is one of the longest running in the country. The 3,400m long transect was designed to include a range of habitat types. Monitoring takes place every week between the beginning of April and the end of September.
Brown Argus

The data that is collected is passed to Butterfly Conservation’s Monitoring Scheme and provides important knowledge for UK butterfly population trends. Butterflies are highly sensitive to environmental conditions making them good indicators of the state of the environment. Their rapid response to changes in the environment enables us to assess the impact from farming practices, climate change and habitat change.

Small Tortoise Shell Butterfly

While it has been a slow start to the year there are still plenty of peacocks, Walls and common blue about. In total 26 species have been recorded along the transect route, the highest number in Norfolk! Last year good numbers of small copper and dark green fritillary were seen.

Peacock Butterfly

Unfortunately butterflies across the UK are in serious decline either in distribution or population. Overall there has been a decline in three-quarters of butterfly species over the last 40 years. It is therefore very important that Holkham NNR maintains suitable high quality habitats.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Bears and Beetles

The striking Yellow-striped Bear Spider, a rare saltmarsh inhabitant of the reserve.

The fact that Holkham has been a national nature reserve since 1967 has meant that a great deal of its flora and fauna has been well studied. With its diversity of habitats it also means that there is a great deal of it too! Most visitors who come to Holkham will see the familiar and the obvious; birds, deer, hares etc yet there is much more to be seen by the specialist/enthusiastic naturalist. Holkham seems to have this uncanny knack of having certain species that are rare elsewhere yet here are often in abundance. With that in mind a very keen group of mainly entomologists (insect specialists - yet they were keen on all aspects of natural history) called the Pan Species Listers from various parts of the UK descended on the reserve over the weekend of June 18th/19th. Their aim was to find and identify as many species as they could from the Friday evening to the Sunday afternoon. It was great for them to explore such rich coastal habitats and it was good for us to acquire a wealth of information on some often neglected wildlife found on the reserve. Although the weather was far from great (a north westerly wind and rain on the Saturday!) it seems a good time was had by all. Moth traps were set, sweep nets were swept and leaf litter was sifted through to find a fantastic array of insects and other invertebrates. With some of the group coming from as far away as Dorset, Devon, Somerset and the Isle of Wight, a few of the reserve’s specialities were keen to be seen. Luckily for them the increasingly scarce plant Yellow Bird’s nest was just out and in perfect condition. Natterjack Toads seemed to be everywhere the group looked within the dunes, under logs way out of their normal range and even in small burrows close to the beach edge.

One of the group’s main quarries was a small metallic green ‘malachite’ beetle Clanoptilus barnevillei, a bone fide rarity found only along the North Norfolk coast, with Holkham said to be its stronghold. It was not long before it was found and in plentiful numbers on the ragwort flowers amidst the dunes. Other exciting finds were a Bristly Millipede on the barn wall at Hill Farm, a very large russet coloured long horned beetle called the Dusky Longhorn and a large salt marsh loving spider called the Yellow-striped Bear Spider that is only known from a few other sites around the English coast. As is always the case the identification process for many of the more subtle beetles and bugs can be rather time consuming involving cross referencing literature with microscopically examined specimens so at present we are still awaiting the results and findings from the weekend. Holkham NNR has actually had 818 species of beetle recorded here, a life’s work no less for one local enthusiast, so with that in mind there might be plenty of work involved from one weekend’s findings alone !

Andrew Bloomfield, Reserve Warden

Monday, 16 May 2016

Seals at Holkham

There are just two resident seal species in the UK, the common and the grey. The common seal (also known as harbour seals due to their preference to stay near land) is actually less common than its bigger cousin the grey seal.

Common seals are smaller with snub-noses and there is very little difference between males and females, although males may be slightly larger. By contrast, the male grey seal is considerably larger than the female. Greys have a distinctive long ‘Roman noses’. In fact, its scientific name (Halichoerus grypus) means ‘hook-nosed sea-pig’!

Seals return to land to give birth to their pups. Between September and November, grey seals will haul themselves out of the sea to have their white-coated pups. They will then spend around three to four weeks ashore.
Common seals come ashore to give birth from May through to July. Their pups are more readily adapted to a marine life. They are born with well developed hind flippers, meaning that they have the ability to swim within just a few hours of birth. The mother and pup then spend most of their time together in the sea.

The seals will often haul themselves out at low tides to rest and wait for the tide to come back in. They can often be seen relaxing in front of the beach huts at Wells. While these fun animals look cute and friendly they are wild and can give a very nasty bite if threatened. Seals are a protected species and disturbance is an offence. We would ask people to keep a respectful distance, to keep their dogs on a lead and not to enter the seal enclosures.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Cold War Conservation

The North Norfolk coast is famous for its abundance of wildlife. This is because of the chain of almost uninterrupted nature reserves from Dersingham Bog to Felbrigg Estate. These reserves are run by a range of organisations including the RSPB, National Trust, Natural England and of course Holkham Estate.

Holkham NNR borders Stiffkey and last week we joined forces with the National Trust's warden team to conserve the Whirligig. This curious looking structure lies at the far east of the reserve and is the remains of a Cold War rotary launcher which propelled drones over Warham Marsh for target practice.

A spectacular view over Warham Marsh.

It was a beautifully sunny day when we were joined by George, Faith and Helena. The Whirligig was renowned for its abundance of orchids and it was our task to restore the site by removing rank grassland and encroaching brambles. With a combination of brushcutters, chainsaws, teamwork and a roaring fire we cleared over half the area.

Team photo!

We would like to thank the Blakeney Point warden team for their help and for making the day so enjoyable. Fingers crossed that next summer this area will once again be filled with orchids.

 The sun setting over the Whirligig.

Monday, 4 January 2016

2015 was quite a year!

Around this time last year I was interviewed for the Holkham warden position. Little did I know a year later I would be writing my highlights for the year at Holkham. 2015 has flashed past in a blur of summer sun, torrential rain and amazing experiences.
With the start of a 2016 I have decided to reflect on some of my personal highlights
Myself, Andy and Wouter, who was on 
work experience with us last year.

New Species. During my first year at Holkham I have seen some unusual species. Best of all was undoubtedly the Citril finch in May, although the two showy Bluetails later in the year were close second. Pallid Harrier, White-tailed Eagle and our Otter were also highlights; while other exciting creatures included Scarce Emerald Damselfly, a Merveille di Jour Moth and a recently a Red-rumped Swallow. Of course, I enjoy spotting our more familiar species too. Personal favourites include Starlings, Short-tailed Field Vole, Bitterns, Bee orchid and Spoonbills. I can only hope that next year will bring even more interesting creatures to Holkham National Nature Reserve.

Andy's fantastic photo of the Citril Finch.

The beautiful and well camouflaged 
Merveille di Jour Moth

A very cute Short-tailed Field Vole 
we found in a wood pile.

Lots of chicks. Our management and new survey methods have shown success with lots of nesting Lapwings, Avocets, Marsh Harriers and Lapwings. It has been a good year for Natterjacks. The toads had not one but two spawning’s in 2015. With habitat work continuing into the New Year and exciting new projects around the corner our warders are working hard to make Holkham NNR even better for wildlife.

Lapwing chick playing dead.

Volunteers. We would like to say a big thank you to our wonderful volunteers, who have given up there valuable time to help the warden staff. They have played a vital part in keeping the reserve running and have helped keep Holkham NNR in tip top condition for our wildlife.

A few of our hard working volunteers!

Our visitors. Meeting and talking to people who visit the reserve is a highlight of my job, whether they are horse riders on the beach, birdwatchers in the dunes, or walkers just passing through. It is great to chat with all sorts of people and introduce them to our amazing wildlife. Everyone comes to Holkham for different reason but everyone enjoys the peace and quiet and the stunning beauty of Holkham NNR.

The beach has become my favourite 
part of the reserve.

Returning after a long winter break I am looking forward to seeing what the New Year will bring and what exciting new wildlife experiences lie around the corner.