Bringing Birds to the People

Posted: June 19th 2019

by Andy Bloomfield, NNR Warden

The Lookout as viewed from the adjacent reedbed
The Lookout as viewed from the adjacent reedbed

With the inspiring focal point for interpretation and refreshments that we now have in the Lookout, it is worth talking about some of the recent wildlife sightings that can be viewed from there. Nestled beside the old sea wall close to the beach entrance at Lady Anne’s Drive, the building allows a vista of grazing marsh views as well as sightings of birds on the reed fringed lagoon just outside the window. The lagoon was formed by digging out vast quantities of sand and earth to provide a substrate for building the Lookout upon and in doing so created a new addition to the wetland features already dotted around the reserve. Although in its infancy (barely a year old) the lagoon has a backdrop of reeds growing that are spreading outwards across the bare banks of sand. These open areas have proved beneficial this year in attracting a special bird that really loves such a newly formed environment; the Little Ringed Plover.

Little Ringed Plover keeping a careful watch over its youngster
Little Ringed Plover keeping a careful watch over its youngster

The Little Ringed Plover is a small wading bird with bold black and white face markings and vivid yellow rings around their eyes. Once thought of as being a species of warmer countries around Europe, it was unrecorded as a British breeding bird until as recently as 1938. The attraction from then on was a growing number of reservoirs and newly created gravel workings that were appearing across the country. Here an abundance of sandy or gravely open areas offer nesting opportunities and warm spots where insects abound that form the birds’ diet. Norfolk hosted its first breeding pair in 1960 yet it took until 1989 before Holkham welcomed its first nesting pair. On that occasion it was not a new wetland scrape that attracted them but a sugar beet field adjacent to the marsh. In reality when sugar beet fields are planted they offer unlimited open ground and often attract Lapwings and Oystercatchers too. Since then we have had sporadic breeding attempts that have been far from annual. The real attraction is newly formed sandy or stony sites within a wetland, something that ordinarily a grazing marsh wetland like Holkham cannot offer. What the species does like here is when the pools start to dry out, thus leaving open areas of mud and in a dry season with little rain such places offer a perfect substitute to a gravel pit. This year’s pair at the Lookout chose to make the very limited nest, a basic scrape in the sand, at the base of one of the banks. When the tiny youngsters hatch, they are often likened to ‘bumblebees on sticks’ and their small size becomes most apparent when they rush back to huddle up underneath a parent bird for warmth and safety. The parent birds are incredibly feisty and noisy, and they frequently punch above their weight chasing off any other birds that come anywhere near either nest or young.

A juvenile Little Ringed Plover can feed itself on tiny insects but still needs its parents for protection
A juvenile Little Ringed Plover can feed itself on tiny insects but still needs its parents for protection

The grazing marshes east of Lady Anne's Drive, the wtland area is what is left of one of the original saltmarsh creeks that ran from Wells to Holkham in the 1700s
The grazing marshes east of Lady Anne’s Drive, the wetland area is what is left of one of the original saltmarsh creeks that ran from Wells to Holkham in the 1700s

Lapwing on the nest, an image captured by one of our nest cams
Lapwing on the nest, an image captured by one of our nest cams

Lapwing Chick only a few days old
Lapwing Chick only a few days old

Also close to the Lookout are the wet grazing meadows beside the carpark. Here we made small yet significant changes in the winter to the water holding capabilities giving us the ability to maintain fresh water in the remnants of the old 16th century salt marsh creek systems. Our aim as we head into the future is to widen, deepen and link together more of these so a new wetland forms that is viewable from both the carpark and the Lookout. Already the area has proved fantastic with up to four pairs of Lapwings and four pairs of Redshanks producing youngsters in the vicinity, whilst Little Egrets, Spoonbills, Wood and Common sandpipers and Little Ringed Plovers have been seen feeding here. In a large wetland site such as Holkham, much of the area is very sensitive to disturbance so is kept free of people and thus only viewable from a distance so the recent changes have given us the opportunity to bring wildlife to the people. It is very much an avenue that we aim to continue with into the future. For now, however, enjoy looking out from the Lookout at our Little Ringed Plovers. They will probably only remain for a short period and in the early days after hatching they are totally fascinating birds to watch.

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