Friday, 31 March 2017

March - Recent Sightings

March started with a real bang! While working on the front of the dunes a Long-eared Owl flew from the edge of the Pinewoods. The good luck continued with sightings of Pallid Harrier over the reserve and the Holkham area.

The reserve in all its glory

With the heavy rain, the wildfowl gravitated up the scrapes with 10,756 Wigeon enjoying the shallows along with 349 Teal, 208 Mallard, 270 Shoveler and 297 Gadwall. The Tufted Duck and Goldeneye preferred the ditches. Only 600 Pinkfeet were counted the majority already migrating north to their nesting grounds in Iceland and Greenland.

Waders such as Dunlin, Lapwing, Snipe, Curlew, Redshank, Golden Plover and the first Avocets have been coming and going. While there have been no sightings of Bitterns I heard their first growls along with plenty of squealing Water Rails.

Herons have been seen returning back to the Heronry

Birds of prey have been magnificent. 13 Marsh Harriers gathered on the reserve as well as Buzzard, Peregrine, Kestrel and Red Kites. The Norton Barn Owl is still a regular sight in the early mornings.

A Marsh Harrier checking out a possible nesting site.

Smaller birds have included Water Pipit, White Wagtail, Reed Bunting were seen as well as my first Treecreeper on the edge of the Pinewoods.

Our first invertebrates have been seen on the reserve with a surprise Buff-tailed and Early Bumble Bee flying past and a Small Tortoiseshell and Comma making an appearance.

There have also been a few fresh Peacock Butterfly about.

To top things off 3 Cranes were seen flying over the reserve on two consecutive weekends. 

PS While writing this a little Field Vole made an appearance, creeping through the open door and hiding behind my wellies! 

Monday, 20 March 2017

Why Birds?

Without the commotion of summer and with the promise of the survey season around the corner spring is one of my favourite seasons. Waders such as Lapwing and Redshank are migrating back to Holkham to nest; Spoonbills have been spotted; Pink-Feet have departed for Greenland and the warden team are preparing for the breeding bird survey season to start. But why do we and most other reserves concentrate so much time on monitoring birds? Why not mammals or insects?

Our early morning geese counts are nationally important.

To tell the truth, we don’t. At Holkham, we monitor a range of species such as Natterjack Toad,  Water Vole,  moths and a range of plants. We even have one of the longest running butterfly transects in the country.

However, birds are the relatively easy to monitor. Birds are conspicuous, meaning they are easy to identify and count. Mammals, on the other hand, are elusive and some groups of insects are difficult to identify without specialist knowledge and equipment.  Birds are also a great indicator species that respond to the health of the entire habitat and respond to changes in predictable ways.

Holkham is an important site for breeding waders. 

The link between bird species and their habitats make them key for identifying habitat quality. Waders at Holkham feed on important mud-dwelling invertebrates which depend on a delicate balance of mud, water and nutrients. Should the numbers of birds change it could indicate a shift in the habitat. The biodiversity of bird species can also indicate successful wider conservation efforts. A study of bird and butterfly species showed that the two were correlated which suggested that the number of bird species would also indicate the diversity of butterflies in small patches of habitat1. Another study showed the spices richness of birds correlated with six other taxonomic groups2.This shows that monitoring bird diversity can give a clear indication of overall biodiversity.

During the summer we map the calls of song birds in the pine woods.

Birds are incredibly useful as indicators for conservation as well as a familiar, fascinating and colourful creature.

  1. Blair, R.B., Birds and butterflies along an urban gradient: surrogate taxa for assessing biodiversity? Ecological applications, 1999. 9(1): p. 164-170.
  2. Kati, V., et al., Testing the value of six taxonomic groups as biodiversity indicators at a local scale. Conservation biology, 2004. 18(3): p. 667-675.

Monday, 30 January 2017


With the New Year came 2017’s first storm. East Anglia was hit worst of all. The high winds and high tides created a storm surge which battered the coastline. While Holkham got off lightly what the receding waters left on the coastline was a startling wake up call.

Tonnes of litter were washed in on the big tides. The Holkham wardens with our group of dedicated volunteers spent a week removing everything from 2 messages-in-a-bottle, a (full) portable toilet, 5 boats, two thirds of a beach hut and even a bra from almost 6km of Warham Marsh and Overy flood bank. While these odd discoveries have made us laugh it has also been a sobering reminder the amount of rubbish our seas contain.

It is easy to look out over the endless blue and see a landscape untouched and untouchable by human hands. But as the storm surge has shown it is for far from the truth. In fact, it would be fairer to say that we are drowning in plastics. Plastics are hard to avoid from the computer keyboards I’m typing on, the box my lunch is stored into the hundreds of plastic bottles sat in our bins waiting for disposal. We use these materials because of their colourful, durable and resistant qualities. So when we dispose of these items, they remain in our environment as colourful, durable and resistant materials.

Where does this litter end up?
The accumulation of man made plastics in our seas is at a point where they are creating a serious problem for wildlife and their habitats, as well as for the human population. Here are two broad categories of plastic litter: fishing-related gear such as line, netting and buoys; and consumer items including plastic bottles, food packs and balloons.

To put the problem is perspective just 5% of plastics are recycled, 40% go to landfill and a third enter the seas. That is 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the oceans each year. That is one of those statistics that is so large is meaningless! So for a better understanding, according to the Ellen MacArther Foundation by 2050, the amount of plastics in our oceans will outweigh the fish left in our seas1. You can see the obvious results of this staggering fact left on Holkham beach.

Plastic debris has been found in all marine environments from the coastline to the open sea, from the surface to the deepest sea floor. Even when it is stored in ‘secure’ landfills, plastics leach toxic chemicals into groundwater which flow into rivers then lakes, and finally the ocean.

Marine animals are vulnerable to harm from plastics either through ingestion, contamination and entanglement.

Fishing gear, balloons and angling line are common finds on any beach walk but pose a shocking danger for the largest marine mammals such as whales and the UK’s largest carnivore, seals. UNESCO estimate100,000 marine mammals die annually from ingestion and entanglement in marine litter even here on the Norfolk coasts2.

The grizzly remains of dead animals are a common sight on any coastal walk but paying close attention to the dead birds can reveal bottle caps, plastic pieces and plastic wrapping spilling from their stomachs. Attached by the bright colours and mistaking them for prey ‘true’ seabirds suffer the most from the ingestion of plastics. Research into the ingestion of plastics by Laysan Albatrosses showed they have suffered terrible population decline because of this3. Closer to home, Fulmars such as the ones nesting at Hunstanton, are also facing a similar decline4.

The understanding of contamination in the oceans is still limited and very complicated. However, it is understood that the degrading plastics release toxic chemicals that concentrate in species such as fish. These can interfere with the reproductive system of the animals reducing their population. Unavoidably further down the food chain, these chemicals end up in humans like you and me.

The seas help balance our climate and release the oxygen we breathe. It is clear that the sea is a key part of life on earth but at the moment we are all drowning in plastics whether we realise it or not.

So next time you are walking on the coast and enjoy the sea remember that what may appear to be

So next time you are walking on the coast and enjoying the sea remember that what may appear to be thriving wildlife living in an eternal landscape is actually fragile and fleeting and we all need to do our bit to preserve it or it could very easily be lost forever. 

What can you do?
After reading such a preachy and depressing blog you are probably thinking ‘what can I do to help such as bleak and sad crises’. Well, there is a lot! When lots of people change their behaviour a small amount it can have a huge effect. A great example of this is the plastic bag charge which quickly and effectively reduced littering dramatically.  

Yes, I understand that when you look around its hard to see anything that’s not wrapped in plastic! The first step to reducing plastic pollution is to simply cut down.  These 6 easy steps can help to reduce the amount of plastic you throw away every year:

  • Use reusable bags – you can buy these anywhere. I ALWAYS have one on me.

  • Stop using bottled water – use a re-useable container

  • Refuse to buy single-serving packaging (salad boxes), excess packaging and disposable plastics. Straws are one of the most prevalent plastics found in the ocean. Take a packed lunch to work – it will also save you money

  • Reduce everyday plastics such as sandwich bags by replacing them with a lunch bag/box or wrap sandwiches with greaseproof paper

  • Recycle efficiently, check what items can be recycled and choose those in the future.

  • Most importantly, spread the word!
The best way to make a difference to nature is to volunteer. Holkham runs volunteer days during the winter starting in September and ending in March Please see


  1. Ellen Macarthur Foundation., The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, [online]

  1. UNESCO., Facts and Figures on Marine Pollution, 2014, [online] blueprint-for-the-future-we-want/marine-pollution/ facts-and-figure

  1. I D. Michael Fry, Stewart I. Fefer, Louis Sileo., (1987) Ingestion of plastic debris by Laysan Albatrosses and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters in the Hawaiian Islands Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 18, Issue 6, Pages 339-343

  1. Jan A. van Franeker, Christine Blaize, Johannis Danielsen, Keith Fairclough, Jane Gollan, Nils Guse, Poul-Lindhard Hansen, Martin Heubeck, Jens-Kjeld Jensen, Gilles Le Guillo (2011) Monitoring plastic ingestion by the northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis in the North Sea, Environmental Pollution, Volume 159, Issue 10, Pages 2609-2615

Monday, 23 January 2017

Recent Sightings - January 2016

Winter certainly gripped the reserve throughout January. The month was plagued with dense fog, ice and cold temperatures. The storm surge mid-month made things even more exciting.

January had some great sunrises.

The last goose count of the winter yielded 23,500 Pink-feet but they quickly departed throughout the month to start their long migration back to their breeding grounds. Brent’s have continued to remain on site in great numbers especially on Overy Marsh. We even had a lonely Pale-Bellied Brent seen at Holkham. Strangely a Goosander was seen sheltering in Wells channel, an unusual sighting in this part of the world.

Goose counts at first light.

January has also been a great month for a host of other wildfowl including almost 14,000 Wigeon, 1,000 Teal and 133 Shoveler. Lady Anne’s Drive was an excellent (and convenient) spot to watch them from.

A lovely looking drake Teal 

The strong winds made for an excellent sea watching opportunity. The 32 Shore Larks and 35 Snow Buntings were popular with birders but after the storm surge Slavonian Grebe, Short Eared Owl and even a Red Neck Grebe  were reported in Holkham Gap (through neither of the wardens were able to see them). Flocks of around 800 Scoter as well as Velvet Scoter were seen from the beach.

 The Shore Larks were flighty fellows

A Turnstone feeding an Slip Limpet.

This winter has been a great time to see Glaucous Gulls and Holkham has been no different as they scavenge off dead seals. An Icelandic gull was also reported at Wells.

The only photo of a Glaucous Gulls I got!

Hunting Peregrines made a spectacular nuisance of themselves during the WeBS counts but it was during our post storm surge litter pick at Warham that we saw a juvenile hunting Redshanks over the Marsh. Marsh Harriers and Buzzards were also regularly seen but Red Kites remained strangely absent.  
A Redshank at Warham

There were plenty of passerines around with a good number of Stonechats and at least three Rock Pipits at Overy Bank. There was a notable influx of Song Thrushes, Blackbirds and Waxwings. Also notable today was the reappearance of Skylarks which seem to have been totally absent recently. While emptying dog poo bins in the morning I often saw Kingfishers, a Barn Owl and Pink-feet which is a bonus when  doing  this unpleasant but necessary job! Finally, 20 Yellow Hammers feeding in the hedgerows rounded the month off nicely. 

Also a notable sighting was my first view of a Holkham Otter! I watched it swim through Wells channel while I was eating fish and chips on the Quay!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Holkham NNR's Wonderful Volunteers

Throughout this year I have worked with some wonderful volunteers. They have been very busy working on the reserve and between them they have contributed to over 1000 hours of their time. The work carried out is crucial in helping us implement our important conservation work. We could not achieve what we do without their support.

Working hard or hardly working!

The diversity of our volunteers bring all sorts of skills and experiences as well as lots of entertaining stories. Throughout the year we have called on our growing team of volunteers to help us with all aspects of reserve work from cutting down encroaching willow in the reedbeds, carrying out wildlife surveys or collecting litter from the beach. Rain, hail or shine the volunteers are always willing to work hard.

No task is to great or too small.

In the two years I have worked with these fantastic people I have never had a complaint no matter how miserable the weather or how hard the task is. In return for a cuppa  and a caramel digestive we get commitment, hard work and lots of enthusiasm.

We removed well over 100 bags of litter from the beach this year.

From the reserve team, thank you so very much for all the time and effort you put in, your hard work is massively appreciated and makes a huge difference to the wildlife in the reserve.

Wishing you all a merry Christmas! See you again next year!

If you’re interested in volunteering at Holkham NNR, check out our volunteering page here. If you fancy becoming a volunteer on one of the most amazing spectacular reserves in the UK then send an email to

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


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.