The first coach outing of the new year, like the last of the old one, was I'm pleased to say a pretty full one. Equally we were treated with good weather- pretty balmy for January and I managed the whole day without gloves, which is unusual for the Norfolk coast in winter.
Holkham is always a popular location, situated on the north Norfolk coast between Wells-next-the- Sea and Burnham Overy and is just under 10,000 acres in area. A National Nature Reserve, it comprises a wide range of habitats from deer parkland (which I didn't get time to visit), meadows, reedbeds, pine belt, sand dunes, saltmarsh as well as the sea itself. The Corsican Pines were planted by the second Earl of Leicester in the late nineteenth century and provide shelter for migrants. We did see a large mixed flock actively moving through these pines which comprised many Coal Tits and Goldcrests. A few Stinking Hellebores were just coming into flower below the edge of the pines.
Our arrival at Holkham approximately coincided with high tide so with some scanning of the fields along Lady Anne's Drive we headed to the beach to search for seabirds. Often the saltmarsh here is the top spot in the country for Shore Larks but at the time of our visit none were reported anywhere in the country. We had to make do with about a dozen each of Linnets and Skylarks while along the creek were several Oystercatchers and Redshank with a solitary Little Egret. A few of the group later found a flock of Snow Buntings at the far end of the beach.
Most obvious on the sea were a few close Red-breasted Mergansers; the drakes of this sawbill are always an elegant sight. A Common Seal was frequently seen spy hopping just metres from the beach. Surprisingly a flock of Teal was sitting on the sea. A distant group of three Eiders had us scratching our heads initially as they appeared quite small but the plumage of the 1st winter drake made the identity easier to resolve. A distant flock of Common Scoter was picked up in flight and also a couple of Red-throated Divers were noted. Several Sanderlings along the water's edge delighted as they played Canute!
Holkham in winter is synonymous with wild geese- in particular Pink-footed Geese. Unlike previous trips there were no vagrant geese to be seen, though a Ross's Goose was recently at Cley. However as expected Pinkfeet were around by the thousands and this is always a top spot for close views of these Icelandic breeders. The spectacle of the masses, especially in the air, is always an awesome sight and sound From the far tower hide we also saw a small flock of Eurasian Whitefronts mixed with some of the feral Greylags. Completing the goose tally was a flock of c 30 Dark-bellied Brent Geese and a couple of pairs of Egyptian Geese.
Wigeon was the most numerous duck species which grazed the flooded meadow with smaller numbers of Teal. A small number of Shoveler and a few Pintail were seen on the brook while Curlew probed the soft ground. Raptors seemed plentiful with at least three each of Buzzard and Marsh Harrier, a Sparrowhawk and female Kestrel.
The highlight for me was the good number of Grey Partridges seen, a species that has shown a catastrophic decline over the last few decades. A lot of conservation management is undertaken on the Holkham Estate which has no doubt assisted this species. We had particularly close views of this game bird in front of the tower hide and also as we returned back along Lady Anne's Drive.
In addition to the birds we also found four Muntjac in the meadows. The habitat looked perfect for Chinese Water Deer, but these individuals were clearly the former species.
Towards the end of the afternoon we took our positions seeking Barn Owls. George spotted the first one. Sadly it was very distant but many people got onto it. Returning we found a closer second individual, but the views were not as brilliant as some previous trips.
Overall a very enjoyable day out.