As is often the pattern the first coach trip of the year was almost fully booked though at the last minute there were a few cancellations for health reasons and a couple fearing it would be too cold. The forecast did look bitter but the day was a beautiful winter's day; lots of sunshine until mid afternoon when it clouded up. It was quite blowy in the bay (and a rough, choppy sea) but landward of the shelter belt it felt very pleasant and not particularly cold- I even removed my gloves as we headed back inland!
Before we even arrived at Holkham, England's largest NNR (nearly 10,000 acres) Frosso had spotted a flying Barn Owl just before 11am. Everybody had good views of Barn Owls at Holkham. In some cases the owl found them and flew very close. In total we must have seen three or four different individuals. This is always a top site for seeing this charismatic species.
High tide fell just before we arrived so I had advised we make our way there first. However with so much bird life either side of Lady Anne's Drive it was a slower walk than hoped for with plenty of wildfowl and waders to distract us. There were small groups of "purring" Dark-bellied Brent Geese and large flocks of Wigeon. At times we saw large numbers of Wigeon flying around in the distance turning almost like a flock of waders.
Normally we see huge numbers of Pinkfeet here but today the numbers were much fewer than usual and the birds more distant. The Lapwing looked splendid in the low sunshine living up to their old name of Green Plover. Also present were some 50 Redshank, 3 Ruff (confusing some as to their identity), Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and a couple of Oystercatcher. As well as the birds we were able to watch the antics of a Brown Hare and others spotted Muntjac.
Given the number of birds present it's no surprise that the area is also a magnet for raptors with many in the air at once. These included several Marsh Harriers and Buzzards, a Red Kite spotted by Ben (my first here), Kestrel and a Peregrine.
Exiting the boardwalk into the expansive Holkham Bay we felt the wind hit us- but it wasn't bitter despite coming from a northerly direction. The saltmarsh yielded little apart from a Skylark and a Meadow Pipit. Navigating the way towards the dunes was tricky for those without wellies due to the streams passing down to the sea.
As mentioned the sea was very rough which made finding seabirds tricky. There were some large rafts of duck but all those I saw were Wigeon- several hundred of them, though others saw a few Common Scoter. Otherwise I picked up five Red-throated Divers flying over the water and the odd Cormorant.
While most of us had our eyes focused on the sea Frosso looked to her left and spotted a small group of birds landing by the stream. As we all looked round there was a whoop of excitement as they were identified as Snow Buntings. It's always a thrill to see these northern passerines as they move along feeding on small seeds. Initially we counted 14 of them but later as the group moved around we eventually tallied 25. Also on the beach was a large group of whitish Sanderling feeding along the stream.
We decided to have lunch in the shelter of the hides. Walking along the path there were some large mixed flocks of Coal and Long-tailed Tits with Goldcrests and a couple of Treecreepers; one of the latter giving superb views a few metres in front of us just a couple of metres off the ground.. For the botanically minded quite a few Stinking Hellebores were flowering. The first small pool provided the usual couple of Goldeneye and several Little Grebes. From the first hide we had views of Grey Partridge and from the second a Great White Egret (another Holkham first for me, though the species is now an increasing visitor to the UK and breeding in small numbers on the Somerset Levels) feeding by a large pool and I picked out several Eurasian Whitefronts mixed with some other geese.
Returning to Lady Anne's Drive we scanned the fields having more views of foraging Barn Owls, a pair of Stonechat and a small flock of Golden Plover flew up with a large group of Lapwing.As we headed back Wendy had asked us to look at a bird of prey further down. It had disappeared but sitting on a distant bush was a largish raptor with a very pale head and breast and dark chestnut belly. It was clearly a Buteo species but which one. We never saw it fly, but it did look good for Rough-legged Buzzard (several present in Norfolk at the time) but of course Common Buzzard can be very variable and there was a more normal type sitting ahead of the bird in question. When I got home and looked at some images of one of the Rough-legged Buzzards from Norfolk that day it did look a deadringer for the bird we saw. Was it our bird- perhaps? Frustrating we didn't see it in flight.
A great day out in one of our favourite wintering birding sites! Maybe join us on a future coach trip where we look at all the birds and other fauna and flora in season.