Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)
Tuesday 12th April saw our first Outdoor Workshop of the year – Migrating Birds. With a steady flow of both passage and breeding migrants already showing up along the Norfolk coast all 5 members of the workshop were excited and keen to explore the National Nature Reserve to see what we could find.
We didn’t have to wait long as our first ‘decent’ birds gave us excellent views without us having to leave the car park on Lady Anne’s Drive! A pair of Mediterranean Gulls was partaking of some parallel walking as a show of affection on the grazing marsh, an unexpected spot in this part of the county. Following them up came an absolutely splendid Spoonbill, a real Holkham speciality, which showed off its breeding plumes and yellow colouring beautifully only a few yards from the parked cars. As if this wasn’t good enough, we then caught flight views of the long-staying Great White Egret gliding overhead – surely, along with the Spoonbills, another sign of the impact of climate change.
Our next treat came again before we even left the car park, when a pair of Barn Owls (one who I am sure was called Hooty!) drifted ghostily along the embankment looking for voles. Happy with our start, we headed along the back of the pine woods, checking the avenue of pines, holm oak and scrub for interesting passerines (small perching birds). We discussed the importance of recognising bird song and using this as both a tracking and identification device. With all the snazzy kit in the world, it’s no use if you can’t first find the birds with your ears and eyes. So, it was with the mantra ‘eyes, ears, bins, scope’ ringing in ours that we found and observed some great little birds: Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Coal Tit, Long Tailed Tit, Robin, Wren and a gorgeous and aptly named Treecreeper.
Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)
As we reached Salt’s Hole, a brackish pool bordering the grazing marsh, we could see several small and extremely busy water birds diving and popping up repeatedly. This was the family of Little Grebes (known in Norfolk as Dabchicks) that bred successfully here last year. Up to 6 can be seen on Salt’s at any one time. Accompanying them were some Gadwall, Shelduck and pretty Teal.
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Out on the grazing marsh Redshank were claiming territory very noisily and we caught sight of another distant Spoonbill. A couple of Common Buzzard were also circling high above us and then drifted off towards the Monument, no doubt in search of rabbits.
The drizzle had turned to a heavy shower and so we ducked into Washington Hide for some shelter and a great view across the scrub, lagoon and reedbeds.
Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)
The main highlight from here was the Marsh Harriers, fantastic raptors often taken for granted here in Norfolk. Several were busy collecting nesting material, flushing wary waterfowl from the lagoon. As the rain began to lash down they seemed happy to perch on a stump and wait it out, much as we were doing. A vociferous Chiffchaff dropped onto a bare sycamore right next to the hide and we also made out the songs of Sedge and Cetti’s Warblers from somewhere in the depths of the reeds and scrubs. Alas they did not emerge to show themselves and we were a week or too early to hear the ‘reeling’ Grasshopper Warbler.
Thankfully the rain eased up after a short time and we moved back out into the field in search of a rare passage migrant or two. Passing Meal’s House we came across some feeding parties of mixed tits, which held a few tiny and very cute Goldcrests and we heard but again did not see the Willow Warbler. The cold, damp air seemed to be keeping these spring migrants huddled deep in the foliage and out of view.
Next stop was the Joe Jordan Hide, which overlooks the ancient Iceni fort, the large lagoons and lush grazing marsh. Immediately more Spoonbill activity was apparent, with several birds wheeling around in their characteristically stoop-necked flight poses. Another was feeding in the shallows of the lagoon, along with a group of 16 elegant Avocet, fresh in for the season. Probing for worms to the left was a large group of Curlew, also recently arrived, some Egyptian Geese (not actually a goose at all, but a type of Shelduck) and a pair of Red-Legged Partridge. The pair of the more impressive Grey Partridge that normally hangs out here did not, unfortunately, show. Amongst the busy and brilliantly noisy Curlew, sat in the middle of a patch of sedge was a huge Brown Hare.
Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)
Looking out again to the Cormorant roost, we spotted a lot more Spoonbill activity – probably in the region of 10 individuals – a truly fantastic sight. Also a group of 5 Little Egrets flapped past and more raptors were present in the form of Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards.
Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)
Next we headed out towards the dunes of Burnham Overy in the hope of some Ring Ouzel and Wheatear action. Before we got there, however, another little technique proved invaluable - simply stop and wait for 10 minutes and see what birds come to you. Pausing by a couple of lovely Holm oaks and a stand of bare-branched trees, it was soon apparent that there was a lot of small bird activity. More Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs were followed by 3 superb male Blackcaps, singing mellifluously. Then Peter, one of our group, noticed a flash of green and fire in the bare trees. Firecrest! What a magnificent bird it was, darting around after insects and giving us lovely views. Undoubtedly the highlight of the day. Great spot, Peter!
Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita)
Our trek through the dunes produced almost no avian action, save for a Song Thrush overhead, but we did get lucky with a rather rare amphibian. ‘Running’ across our path was a beautiful (in our opinion) Natterjack Toad, a small population of which is present and protected here on the NNR. Its orange-brown nobbles were dissected by a striking yellow line and it seemed happy to pose for a few pictures.
Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)
Deciding to leave the dunes in favour of the path along the edge of the pines, we managed to bag a few more excellent spots before we arrived, happy but exhausted, back at Lady Anne’s Drive. One of the Tree Pipits that I had scouted on previous recces was perched up at the top of a pine sapling and gave us excellent flight views, which diagnosed it as a true Tree Pipit and not its much commoner Meadow cousin. Numbers of Linnet flitted around searching for seeds and we again heard Sedge and Willow Warblers. Back by the marsh we watched some handsome Pochard before our final treat, a close encounter with a pair of Muntjac Deer.
Looking back at our list of species seen, we had clearly had a very productive morning, with sightings of many fantastic birds and other wildlife. I can’t wait to get out on the next migration workshop, when the birds make the return trip in October! Please see our website for booking details.