Monday, 21 November 2016

A Duo from the Desert and Larks from the North.

October was as usual a very exciting month on the reserve at Holkham. As well as the much publicised beaching of a dead Fin Whale, almost continuous easterly winds brought a multitude of rare and unusual migrant birds, many from as far away as Siberia and central Asia. Foremost amongst them were a couple of rare wheatears. Wheatears are insect eating birds that resemble small thrushes recognisable by having a very distinctive white rump patch and a black and white tail. Only one species is found commonly in Britain, the Northern Wheatear. It breeds in upland moors and mountains and occasionally on coastal dunes. Here at Holkham it passes through in spring and autumn between wintering grounds in Africa and breeding grounds in northern Britain, Scandinavia and even as far north as Greenland. Its love of arable fields on migration gave it an apt and widely used old name in Norfolk; the ‘clod hopper’.

Desert Wheatear

The two rarities, the Desert and the Isabelline Wheatear both arrived on the same day to the same part of the reserve. Both were also of a similar sandy brown colour. Desert Wheatears as their name suggests inhabit deserts with a range that takes in North Africa, the Middle East and throughout the steppes and deserts of central Asia. In Britain a handful arrive each year in October/November usually at coastal sites along the east coast. This year’s bird was a female (lacking the male’s black throat) and it eked out a five day stay grubbing out insects from the sparse vegetation and beach edge close to Gun Hill, a site that could be described as superficially being rather desert-like in appearance! Slightly larger and with a different tail pattern was the Isabelline Wheatear. Miraculously it remained until November 12th, the mild conditions of late enabling it to still find plenty of insect food. It breeds no nearer than Bulgaria and Greece in steppe-like fields, plains and semi-desert areas right across Asia to Mongolia and China and usually winters in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and NW India. Despite its rather insipid appearance it is famed for having a fantastic voice, its song being a loud and rich tapestry of sounds ranging from clicks and squeaks to melodious ‘wolf whistles’ amidst much mimicry. In Britain it remains a bona fide rarity with only one or two every couple of years. Despite being only the fourth Norfolk occurrence it is actually the second individual to have been seen here on the reserve.

Isabelline Wheatear at Gun Hill.


 Shore Larks basking in the morning sun.

One other species that looks set to winter is the Shore Lark. This delightful song bird with neat yellow and black face markings migrates to eastern England to escape the hostilities of a winter on the high tops of Scandinavian mountains where it nests. Varying numbers appear each year but this winter looks like it will be a bumper season with close on 80 birds being present already. These restless little birds favour the tide line or areas of pioneering salt marsh where the seeds from plants such as Annual sea blite, Samphire, Prickly Saltwort, Sea Aster and Sea Lavender are sought after for food. The area between Holkham and Wells is typically favoured. The flock can easily be found and at times can be most confiding. The best technique is to find a quiet spot and wait and very often the birds may come quite close. Please give them some space. Feeding time and a lack of disturbance is an essential requirement for them in the short winter days so help them on their way by keeping dogs under closer control in this area and photographers by not venturing too close particularly if there are others trying to watch them from further away.


Andy Bloomfield

Warden, 

Monday, 7 November 2016

A Whale of a Problem

The nation’s eyes turned to Holkham this October thanks to the arrival of a dead Fin Whale.  Washing up on Holkham beach on 20th October it made quite the impression. The following day staff from the Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme (CSIP) arrived and performed a thorough investigation of the whale.

Fin Whales are an endangered species and not usually seen in the North Sea preferring the deep water of the Atlantic. Occasionally however they do appear on the British coast, in fact this is the fourth Fin Whale stranding CSIP had attended this year. Fin Whales are the second largest mammal on earth and also the fastest swimmers (up to 15mph!). They are a baleen whale meaning they are essentially filter feeders straining food through the hairy plates on its upper jaw. Fin Whales are noticeably unique thanks to the lower right jaw being bright white and the lower left jaw being black. This is thought to be used to frighten its prey into dense groups making them easier to catch. The whale that washed up at Holkham was only 13m long making it a juvenile. They can grow up to 26m as an adult!

CSIP staff taking samples from the internal organs.

After a day of slicing the CSIPs staff carefully removed samples from the internal organs, bone, baleen plates and eye ball as well as a noticeable ‘hump’ just above the tail stock. The post mortem indicated that the hump had a spinal abnormally caused by a boat strike. This injury limited its ability to swim impeding its ability to dive and feed leading to ill heath resulting in a parasite infestation and eventual starvation.

The eye being removed.

This tragic turn of events was a sad end to such a rare and striking whale. Especially as the Fin Whale population has declined dramatically due to whaling, pollution and habitat destruction. This individual will be sorely missed as the population continues to fight for survival.

The autopsy lasted till dusk.

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

Bitterns

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.