Friday, 22 September 2017

Wildlife from the window of a tractor

Early morning at Burnham Overy marshes and distant sand dunes

Working on the nature reserve has many rewarding days. That’s probably very much an understatement – nearly every day has its rewards! There is nothing better than seeing some wonder of nature whilst carrying out work on the reserve. For me, that’s as much as the changing skies that come with the contrasting seasons. Varying lights and weather means that even the same view can look totally different, in fact seldom the same and very often quite dramatic. Sightings of wildlife also seem more memorable for me when carrying out actual physical work. A glance up at the right moment to witness a specific bird or a butterfly can be enough to break up the day and enliven what sometimes might seem an unrewarding task.

A Great Snipe - photograph kindly supplied by Chris Knights

One of those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences happened in 2005 when I was ‘topping’ the marshes by tractor not far from Lady Anne’s Drive. I had just got to the last strip of grass to cut and up popped an exceptionally rare bird from north eastern Europe - a Great Snipe. Closer in size to a Woodcock than its smaller and more common relative, the Snipe, this cryptically marked wader of almost mythical desire amongst the twitching fraternity was there right in front of me, sitting beside my front wheel! It made the memories of long days behind the wheel of a tractor getting stuck in wet fields fade away in an instance. It is also true to say I would never have seen it had I not been there working in a tractor. A similar thing happened only recently, the last strip of dyke side vegetation cut and there sat a rather regal and annoyed looking Short-eared Owl. Some naturalists say it is bad to anthropomorphise but I defy anyone to look into the eyes of a Short-eared Owl and not do so! This particular one really did look like I had ruined its day by gate crashing into its own wild world. 

A newly arrived migrant Short-eared Owl as seen through the window of a tractor !

Some birds seem oblivious to the movements of tractors and the amount of exciting species or unusual behaviour I have seen whilst working has been quite remarkable. It is not just birds either, sometimes mammals otherwise not seen can be observed. Species such as Short-tailed Field Voles are common and are often seen scurrying away before a Kestrel swoops down to catch one. Birds like Grey Herons and Kestrels seem to be in tune with our workings and soon appear once mowing commences. The same behaviour was noted with Red Kites in the Park recently too. One of the least seen mammals is the brightly coloured yet diminutive Harvest Mouse. There are undoubtedly more about than we realise as normally the only time I manage to see one is whilst topping. This year I was very lucky to see one run off and swim across one of the dykes, its bright orange coat looking like a lost sweet wrapper drifting across the water.

Newly arrived Pink-footed Geese preparing for a winter in Norfolk

So, if our fields on the reserve are all grass meadows with no crops, why do we spend so much time in tractors on the marsh? The grazing marsh meadows form part of a very valuable and declining habitat in the UK. Lowland wet grassland disappeared dramatically in the 20th century due to drainage schemes and conversion to arable fields. In doing so, many of the species that formerly thrived in them started to decline to almost disastrously low levels. At Holkham we are fortunate in having up to 535 hectares of wetland, much of which is wet meadowland. For it to remain attractive to our key breeding species such as Lapwings, Redshanks and Avocets and also our wintering birds like Pink-footed Geese and Wigeon a lot of fine tuning and effort goes into achieving the right conditions. This involves controlling water levels, extensive grazing by cattle, dyke dredging, providing scrapes, pools and islands and mechanical topping by tractor driven mowers. By using mowers, areas that the cows ignore can be topped thus preventing them turning to scrub and the correct sward height of grass can be obtained and hopefully making them the ideal habitat for nesting Lapwings next spring.

Lapwings love to nest in short wet grassland

If we have missed spots from our topping system all is not lost as this week alone we have close on 10,000 newly arrived Pink-footed Geese from Iceland on our meadows, which means quite a lot more grazing ! Typically the first few birds arrive in the first few days of September, but this year they seemed slightly later arriving but when they did appear it was in greater numbers than normal. Over 100 dropped in on 13th September and quickly increased to 1100 on 15th and over 10,000 by 21st. If you are visiting Holkham in the next few weeks take a look for the geese. In recent years we have typically seen big build ups in October before the birds disperse across the county to feed on newly harvested fields of sugar beet tops. It is still one of nature's great spectacles; masses of geese clamouring for space on the marshes, their calls reaching fever pitch amidst vast skeins often illuminated by spectacular sunsets.

Part of an early autumn mass of returning Pink-footed Geese

Andrew Bloomfield

Monday, 11 September 2017

Marvellous Mini Beasts

Two of our regular invertebrate recorders using a leaf blower in reverse to sample for spiders and beetles at Holkham Bay

This summer we were involved with two quite high profile local events at Holkham that proved very rewarding for not only members of the public but also for the members of staff involved. Firstly came the coast wide Bio-blitz. This involved enthusiasts from every branch of natural history descending into all the various habitats along the coast and trying to identify and record as much as they could find. This was open to keen specialists, experts, and County recorders alongside general members of the public. Here at Holkham alone we managed to record nine new species of fungi for the reserve (including a new species for Norfolk – a very insignificant looking ‘black smudge’ fungi), a spider only known from one other site in Norfolk, a hoverfly only previously recorded in the Norfolk Broads (the Sea Clubrush Hoverfly) and two new beetles for the site. For a site that has been a nature reserve since 1967 this was quite a selection.

Lady Anne's Drive on Bio-blitz day

Achaearanea riparia,a new spider for the reserve and a county rarity

Rarities aside the joy showed by children as they were shown moths brought out from some overnight traps was priceless. For many, moths are the poor man’s butterflies that only come out at night, are drab in colours and munch clothes in our wardrobes. Nothing of course can be further from the truth. Here in the UK there have been an incredible 2,500 species recorded. So whilst it is true many are nocturnal (hence the need to attract them and catch them aided by uv lighting) many are also day flying and many are impressive looking colourful beasts. For most children when they see something like a hawkmoth for the first time they are often overwhelmed that such a mystical looking creature can exist outside of a fantasy novel. To see a child over awed from a moth or grasshopper clinging to its finger can be quite magical.

A Long-winged Conehead, an exotic insect that always attracts attention

At Holkham we took this a step further this year by running a mini-beast hunt in Wells Pinewoods as part of the annual carnival celebrations. On two days we set up shop along with the Estate’s Education Department in the hope that a few children might pop along and find us a few insects and other creepy crawlies to inspire them and for us to identify. When the start time arrived we found ourselves under an avalanche of small children eager to hunt out, collect and bring to us for identification what they had found. Initially it seemed like a happy form of pandemonium. There were children dashing about everywhere, turning over logs, peeling off tree bark, crawling underneath bramble bushes, clutching pots and nets with wood lice, worms, centipedes, beetles, butterflies and even toads. Their enthusiasm was infectious and the event proved even more successful than we could imagine. The excitement shown was both non stop and heart-warming. On an even bigger plus side, they produced the goods too. 

The Red Longhorn Beetle

The Red Longhorn beetle is a relatively scarce insect that has its UK stronghold in the south of England, particularly the forests of Breckland. It also has an outpost along the north Norfolk coast with the conifer wood of Holkham and Wells being a known site. What we did not realise was just how many we had. In the two days at least 15 were found all within a restricted area of the wood. An adult Ant-lion was also found, a specialised insect of the woods that still very few Norfolk naturalists have ever set eyes upon. One of the strangest finds, more due to its circumstances, was the reserve’s first ever Woodlouse Spider. It fell out of a branch and straight onto the arm of one of our visitors, amidst a chorus of shrieks! It is armed with ferocious looking jaws that enable it to pierce the armour plating of a wood louse (its main prey), hence its name. No bites occurred to our visitors though! Ultimately it was great to see such interest in our natural world and left me hopeful that at least some would become the next generation of field naturalists. It also left us hoping that the next time a bio-blitz is organised we can get an army of small children with keen senses to scour our vegetation and even more might be found!

An adult Antlion - a very lucky find on our mini-beast hunt

The Woodlouse Spider, with its impressive jaws opened wide!

Andy Bloomfield