Speaker: Paul Eele
Reporter: Sue Gale
After a career in the RSPB that culminated in 15 years as Warden at Titchwell, Paul moved to become Warden at the Holkham National Nature Reserve 4 years ago. This was a very big step up in terms of area, as the Holkham reserve covers some 4000 hectares, many times larger than Titchwell and stretches along the coast from East of Wells to Burnham Norton. Paul and his colleagues manage the NNR and also support tenant farmers on the estate with conservation advice.
Paul described the highlights of each season, using his own excellent photographs, starting with Spring. Early signs that the estate is awakening are the Brimstone butterflies that feed on the early flowering willows, and the arrival of Wheatears among the dunes. Further into April the summer visitors start to arrive, the earliest of the warblers being the Sedge Warbler. Spring is the most exciting time of the year for Paul, when he can begin to assess the success of the work that has been done during the winter. On the wet grassland the key species are Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe, Oystercatcher and Avocet. Numbers of breeding pairs
are carefully monitored, as is the productivity of those nests as the year progresses. Each of these species favours a different type of grass cover, from smooth to tufted or long, or to waters edge. Work to make the marshes wetter has been the cause of the reappearance of Snipe on the reserve, and there were three drumming males at Burnham Overy this year, the first for 5 years. Waders on the reserve and beach are all showing signs of recovery, as are that perennial favourite the Bearded Tit, of which there were 30 pairs this year. This in spite of the relatively small area covered by reedbed at Holkham. Paul’s job gives him the
opportunity to watch for and record the movements of migrating birds as well as monitoring breeding species and he has observed the increasing numbers of Common Crane flying over as they continue their successful colonisation of Norfolk. And it isn’t only birds – Paul showed us a photo of an unusual Silver Hare – the grey variant of our usual Brown Hare, and the reserve is a great place for these.
Summer brings with it a few problems mostly caused by the big increase in visitor numbers. In particular the beach-nesting species have suffered from disturbance and they have not done well lately. However, at Holkham they have introduced some roped-off areas to provide some protection at Gun Hill and the beach East of Holkham Gap. Additionally, this year they introduced some zoning for dog activities and this has been very well accepted by the public. The populations of Ringed Plover and Little Tern are creeping upwards, but more importantly productivity is doing better. For the grassland nesting species, it is not the people who provide the pressures but mostly predators. At both the egg stage and as chicks these birds are very vulnerable, so the grassland is managed to provide cover for newly mobile chicks. The Decoy a famous area of the NNR where there have been long- establishes heronries, but which is now home to nesting ‘White Birds’! First to arrive were the Little Egrets, now a common sight, of which there are now some 30-40 nesting pairs in the Decoy. They were followed by Spoonbills, that have been nesting for about 5 years and have reached a similar number. Great Egrets are also now regular breeders with 6 pairs this year, and lastly Cattle Egrets have bred in the area, although not this year for some unknown reason. Monitoring nest numbers is very difficult in the decoy, which is densely covered in trees and almost impossible to count in once the leaves are out. Recently the
use of a drone has proved very helpful! Paul could also point to the 2-3 booming male Bitterns heard this year, and the attempt at breeding of Black-winged Stilts at Burnham Overy. The very gratifying increase in all these species is partly due to conservation management, but also of course to the impact of climate change.
Aside from birds, Summer is the time to visit, preferably at dusk or later, to listen to the Natterjack Toads. The pools at Burnham Overy host a growing population and the sound at the height of breeding activity can be almost deafening! It is also worth looking through the dunes for the Bee Wolf which predates on other insects, and also for the splendid array of butterfly species, the star being the Dark Green Fritillary. There have been two new species of dragonfly for the reserve this year, the Southern Migrant Hawker and the Norfolk Hawker. Like the Cranes, this is expanding out of its traditional home in the Broads. Otters are always popular with the visitors but they are a mixed blessing as they enjoy an egg or small chick for breakfast! Rabbits, however, have almost gone from the dunes and grassland areas, again a mixed blessing as the numbers of at least 4 species of Orchid have increased.
Autumn is the great migration season. Juvenile Ruff and Common Sandpiper might be the early heralds of the season, and these young birds are more easily approached than the more wary adults. They have not yet learned to be cautious around humans. Mind you, if you can drive a large vehicle across the reserve its often easy to get close to even the adult birds. Paul gives credit to this method for many of his close-up portraits of birds. That and his willingness to lie on his stomach at the edge of a pool or in the middle of a damp meadow! The dunes and pines are the place to be in Autumn, looking for the migrant passerines stopping off for a feed and some cover after crossing the North Sea. Fieldfares
and Redwings with Goldcrests and small warblers like the iconic Yellow-browed Warbler might even land at your feet! And don’t forget to look out for Earthstars among the dunes: A fascinating group of fungi of which several species might be found here.
Winter at Holkham is always going to be associated with geese. Pink-footed Geese in particular. They arrive in great numbers and spend the winters roosting on the marshes and flying inland to feed on the arable fields in the day. But even these are declining in number, probably mostly because of changes in land management and agriculture. There is less food around as sugar beet is grown less and harvested more efficiently. Although it is time- consuming, it is often well worth scanning through a flock of thousands of ‘pinkfeet’ for the occasional rare goose that has travelled with them. White-fronted Geese arrive later and are at their peak in December/January. They are also more fussy about their grassland – look for them from Tower hide at Holkham. Brent Geese are the last of the big number species to arrive, and are more coastal in habit. Look for them along the shore. And you won’t be able to miss the big flocks of Wigeon feeding on the grass either side of Lady Anne’s Drive. If you don’t see them immediately you will certainly hear them. The beach is also good for waders in winter, with less disturbance for the visiting birds.
Farmers are leaving bigger margins around their field edges these days, so there are more voles for the Barn Owls, which are consequently doing well all across the estate. Large flocks of finches, like Linnets, are also found in the arable areas. Lady Anne’s Drive is a good place to look for Grey Partridge, and also Red kites and Ravens, neither of which would have been seen 20 years ago. But perhaps the most famous visitors in the winter, among birders anyway, are the Shore Larks and Snow Buntings. Disturbance has been much reduced by roping off an area East of Holkham Gap, and it has worked well, so Shore Larks have been
reliable in winter for many years, even if in small numbers. Larger flocks of Snow Buntings can be found there, or anywhere along the coastline.
Many thanks to Paul for a fascinating talk, which was to be followed by a club visit to the reserve.
Please feel free to read through our reports from our monthly indoor / online meetings.