Geese in a tree

On another clear, cold day today Brenda and I took a walk through the parkland of the Holkham Estate. It’s a very rich and well-managed habitat and that’s reflected in the variety of wildlife. The park seems to hold an inordinate number of nuthatches; you usually hear them before you see them. Our first new bird species for the day turned out to be a small flock of 6 or 7 redwing – members of the thrush family that are winter visitors to the UK, along with their cousin the fieldfare.

this nuthatch has found a tasty grub

Holkham lake was mostly frozen over and so wildfowl were congregating in one or two spots of open water: This meant that we found – on just one small open area – coot, moorhen, greylag geese, teal, wigeon, shoveler, mallard, pochard and tufted duck; the latter two both being new species for the year. Another first today was the sound of a great spotted woodpecker drumming. The sound was surprisingly loud and a little earlier in the year than I would have expected, as I think it’s usually used to define a breeding territory.

There were also good numbers of small birds around, particularly blue, great, long-tailed and coal tits. Brenda then had to head back to take a service in the local Primary school, after which we agreed to meet up again at the freshmarsh area. I carried on through some more of the park, where I encountered one of the things that I always find amusing – Egyptian geese in the trees: Geese are not a group of birds that most people would associate with trees! But Egyptian geese like perching in trees, making their distinctive and rather harsh calls.

Egyptian geese in a tree

Slightly further on I saw a muntjac. Nothing unusual in that, but I was actually a little confused because it had no antlers at all and was very small. It was only later once I got home that – having looked it up – I discovered that I had seen a muntjac fawn. Unlike most deer muntjac do not have a specific “rut” period, but breed all year round, something I was completely unaware of.

muntjac fawn

I then headed over to Lady Anne’s Drive, which runs north from the coast road towards the beach. On my way out of the park area I had a brief glimpse of my fourth new species for the day, a mistle thrush, which flew over with its distinctive call. Once on to Lady Anne’s Drive I saw, in quick succession, three red kites, several marsh harriers, a kestrel and two buzzards. Then, while scanning the marsh with my binoculars I saw a slightly different harrier: It was perched on a small bank some way off and I immediately noticed the facial markings, a pattern of white that almost seemed to give it white spectacles. My thought was hen harrier, but I’m not very experienced with harriers other than marsh, and so I kept my eyes (or rather eye!) glued to the telescope for about five minutes until it flew off – and yes, there was the tell-tale ring-tail! I then had a look at my bird guide (the very useful app version of the Collins guide – I have the large hardback version, the smaller format paperback one, and the app!) as I find this really helps me to cement some of the diagnostic features of a bird into my poor memory, and I always learn something new as well.

So there was hen harrier, with some white markings on the face of adult female and the juvenile, but not very pronounced markings….and on the same page of the guide is the much less common Montagu’s harrier, with slightly more pronounced facial markings, and looking much more like the bird I had seen. Now I know they are seen in the area, but officially they are summer visitors, so this would be a very unlikely find in late January, when they should all be in Africa. So it was definitely a hen harrier…..except there’s also pallid harrier with extremely similar facial markings on adult females and juveniles. Pallid harriers are quite rare visitors but some occur in most years in the UK. The book says again that in winter they should be in Africa, but I happen to know – from the bird news app that I subscribe to – that there has been one seen very near here on the saltmarsh, on and off for the last few weeks. It’s always been reported between Wells and Stiffkey, but could it have ventured further west for a little excursion to Holkham?

And there we have the nub of bird identification issues for an amateur birdwatcher: Did I see the relatively common hen harrier and just thought the markings were more obvious than in the field guide, or did I see a much rarer pallid harrier a few miles away from where it has been seen recently. Almost undoubtedly the former: If in doubt always go for the commonest species – particularly if you don’t have experience seeing the rarer option! I suppose it’s learning in a nutshell: you can get an awful lot of information from books and the internet, but sometimes what you really need is a teacher – someone who has seen these birds and knows exactly what to look for in the field.

So without that person around I’m putting hen harrier on my list for today, and I’ve now spent some time perusing the harrier pages in the Collins guide, so I’ve also learned more about them. A good outcome!

Brenda rejoined me just after my hen harrier encounter, and we spent a few minutes watching a buzzard that had made a kill – an opportunistic red kite tried to muscle in but the buzzard wasn’t having any of that, and the kite had to be content waiting around until the buzzard had finished. Whilst watching that Brenda saw another kite in a tree – probably also eyeing up the buzzard’s lunch – and when I looked at it I noticed another bird in the same tree which, on closer inspection turned out to be a male peregrine. When – a few moments later – it took to the air almost the entire bird population of the marshes took flight; hundreds of wigeon and teal, snipe, curlew and lapwings. An amazing spectacle!

Finally we watched the sunset from the beach end of Lady Anne’s Drive, and drank a flask of tea, almost alone apart from countless numbers of ducks, geese, waders, raptors, a small flock of grey partridge, a lone snipe, and two quite tame robins!!

a snipe lit by the last sunlight of the day

New species for January 24th:
Birds: pochard, tufted duck, redwing, mistle thrush, peregrine

Birds = 109
Moths = 0
Wildflowers = 11