Safari on Foot - Natural Adaptation

Posted: November 30th 2020

by Will Clennell, Learning and Engagement Officer

In 2019, we decided that we wanted to offer visitors the opportunity to experience the National Nature Reserve at a different level and in greater depth than ever before. With 11 miles of coastline and almost 10,000 acres to explore, using a 4X4 vehicle would enable us to cover a great deal of ground, get off-road and, with the kind permission of the NNR Wardens, enter parts of the reserve that are usually off-limits to the public. These NNR Experience Days proved to be extremely successful and popular, with visitors travelling great distances to spend a day on the hugely diverse habitats we are lucky enough to have at Holkham. Then 2020 happened.

With a full season of bookings ahead of us, the country went into lockdown and it was soon clear that spending a day inside a vehicle with people from various parts of the country would be a non-starter. So, we had to adapt.

We began to work on ideas, across the estate, that would be viable once the restrictions were lifted and people were able to visit us again. As for countless other organisations across the UK it would be a case of one Charles Darwin’s key observations – survival of the fittest. Those who could adapt would make it through the challenging situations. There was no time to stand still.

First off, the vehicle had to go. Any activities we were to offer needed to be outside and in areas that allowed for full social distancing to be observed. We certainly wouldn’t be able to cover as much ground as in a 4X4, but, with a carefully selected route, we could cover hugely varied habitats, each offering their own natural gems. A full day wildlife trek would take in the foreshore and sea, saltmarsh, a mature sand dune system, pine woods, scrub and mixed woodland and the fabulous freshwater grazing marsh. It would be a long day, for committed walkers happy to be out in any weather. Also, as always with nature, nothing is guaranteed. One day you could see a dozen Spoonbills, some colourful fungi and an amphibian or two, whilst others could be spent scratching around for a Robin! Thankfully, the NNR at Holkham never disappoints. Winter or Summer, rain or shine, there are always fascinating flora and fauna to see, and very often something a little extra special. Thus the ‘Safari on Foot’ 8-hour wildlife trek was launched.

Meeting just before 8am at The Lookout visitors centre, situated just about in the middle of the NNR, car park passes and the all-important packed lunches (delicious has been the consensus) were distributed. This time of the morning is always good for getting in some early spots from this raised vantage point. September heralded an early arrival, from Iceland, of the Pink-footed Geese, skeins of which noisily arrived at their wintering grounds on the grazing marsh as we donned appropriate gear for our day of trekking. These petite and handsome geese eventually number up to 60,000 along this part of our coast and watching them ‘whiffle’ down to land on the lush grass of the marsh is an annual treat for the eyes and ears. Also favouring the wetland area around Lady Anne’s Drive has been one of our Great White Egrets, a formerly scarce member of the heron family that now lives and breeds on the reserve. With these species noted down and a history of the development of the NNR shared with our guests we set off towards Holkham Gap, the foreshore, sea and saltmarsh habitats.

Treading along the boardwalk leading down to the ‘Gap’ always feels liking you’re walking directly away from the stresses of today’s frenetic pace of life. The pine woods open up to reveal a panorama of dune, sand, sea and now saltmarsh. The now extensive area of muddy substrate, carpeted with glasswort, sea purslane, thrift, sea lavender and sporadically placed shrubby sea blight bushes has developed in just the last 10-12 years. The previously golden sands of the bay are now a natural feeding table, attracting flocks of Linnets, Meadow Pipits and Snow Buntings, pairs of Skylarks and small numbers of wintering Shorelarks. We are too early in the year for the rarer visitors but observe Oystercatchers, a Ringed Plover and a busy Common Sandpiper. Above us a Kestrel hovers between the dunes and the saltmarsh, searching for voles or lizards for breakfast. We make our socially distanced way into a strong onshore wind passing the cordon, which has been put in place by NNR Wardens Andy and Paul to prevent human and canine disturbance in the area favoured by the rare Shorelarks. A shallow pool has appeared behind one of the main foredunes and feeding in this sheltered area are a small group of Redshank, 4 Ringed Plover and 3 delightful little Sanderling, definitely bonus birds in this area.

We cut through the gap in the dunes and the hugeness of the beach is laid out before us. Despite the gusting wind, it’s a bright, sunny morning and we can see west along the coast well past Gun Hill and towards the edge of the NNR boundary at Burnham Norton. Due to restrictions meaning sharing views in a scope is out of the question, our little taste of sea-watching is through binoculars only. Very fortunately for our group of 10 (allowed as we are an educational tour and fully Covid compliant) 2 Gannets are fishing just metres off-shore, one a pristine adult, superbly white with black wingtips and a daffodil tinge to its head, the other a dark juvenile, uniformly dark brown, its streamlined shape and unmistakeable and lethal bill giving away its identity. Not considered a Norfolk bird, a good number of these dive-bombing anglers pass along the coast from their northern breeding sites. A real treat. Further offshore a sizeable raft of Common Scoter bob in and out of view and the last few remaining Sandwich Terns stock up on whitebait before heading south. A group of largeish birds, predominantly black and white fly low and fast in a line a short way out. These are some of the first Brent Geese of the winter to arrive, from their breeding grounds in the arctic tundra of Russia. They never wander far from the shore and areas of saltmarsh, feeding on eel grass and other coastal pickings.

Having been properly woken up by the fresh blasts off the North Sea we wind our way across the beach and through the spiky marram grass of the foredunes. As we get closer to the back of the pine woods, planted in the mid-19th century under the direction of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, the dunes change, having developed into what are known as grey dunes, having a more nutritious substrate and thus being able to support a much more diverse range of flora, mosses, lichen and fungi. We happen upon some brightly coloured Dune Waxcaps, their caps opening up in petal like formations. Also of note are the dried up remains of some clusters of Sea Holly, stunning in summer and architecturally intriguing once desiccated.

Dune Waxcap
Dune Waxcap

The pine woods, predominantly made up of Corsican pines, with a scattering of Scots pines, were planted as a flood and wind barrier to protect the reclaimed land which is now our grazing marshes. 170 years on and they are still doing just that. Once through the pines and onto the track which divides them, the scrub and the marsh, the temperature seems to have risen a good few degrees and the quiet and calm is only interrupted by the screeching of Jays busy caching acorns and the ‘wink-wink’ calls of skeins of Pink-footed Geese spooked and put up by a hunting Marsh Harrier. The Washington Hide overlooks one of our larger reedbeds and gives a fantastic view across the grazing marshes, taking in the Monument and The Vic, both iconic Holkham landmarks. This year has seen some superb breeding successes on the reserve and the reedbeds have finally become home to a breeding pair of Bitterns, an elusive and rare heron usually seen during brief dawn flights. No Bitterns for us this morning, but a large flock of Curlew has gathered in the middle of the marsh, upwards of 50 birds prodding their long, curved bills into the wet ground in search of worms and other tasty treats. All of a sudden, a magnificently elegant creature of pure white rises from the edge of the reedbed. Reminiscent of a Japanese painting, it alights proudly on one of the posts protruding from the lagoon. A Great White Egret – previously only seen during passage migration, but now well established and breeding right here on the reserve. For many guests this is the highlight of the day so far. We sit, entranced as the bird drops into the water, with hardly a ripple, and stalks its prey.

Having rested our legs, we head west along the back track, between pine and scrub. A stand of Cork-Winged Elms, a species normally found in North America, has been planted along this stretch. In leaf they provide excellent cover and feeding for Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Whitethroats. Naked, at this time of year, the corky ‘wings’ give the trees a prehistoric, petrified look. Just before Meal’s House we pause to listen to the very high-pitched calling of Goldcrests. Following our ears, we soon see a group of four or five of these tiny birds flitting amongst the dangling branches of a Holm Oak, darting out and hovering to catch flies. They seem oblivious to us and feed hungrily before they move off in search of more food, stocking up before they continue on their amazing migration. How can something which weighs the same as a 20 pence piece fly all the way from Scandinavia or Russia to spend the winter here in Norfolk?

Just around the corner from Meal’s House, the scrub, a richly diverse strip of habitat between the pines and the grazing marsh, opens up into a small path – a birder’s trail cut into the reed and bracken by Andy and Paul our highly experienced wardens. The idea for these trails was to have temporary paths which allow birders closer to some of the willows, oaks and hawthorns dotted around the scrub, which are fabulous holding spots for birds passing through on their autumn migration. The plan has most definitely worked. As we weave our way through a clear and distinct ‘chew-it’ call pierces the late morning air. I recognise this as the call of a Yellow-browed Warbler, a colourful and hyperactive little sprite of a bird which never fails to impress. Training our eyes and our ears to the repeated call we search the large willow to our right. A glimpse of movement, another call and then it hops clearly into sight, perching on a small branch at the edge of the tree. With binoculars focussed in on this brightly coloured individual we manage to see its canary yellow ‘brow’ stripe and the two vivid wing bars for a matter of seconds before it is off and away into the depths of a sycamore behind us. Bird of the day so far! Several of the group have never seen this species before and so it goes down as a well earned ‘lifer’. After following the trail round and seeing several Wrens and a band of fluffy Long Tailed Tits we find some logs to take a few minutes’ rest on and have a quick nibble and drink to fuel our next section of the safari.

We continued along the back track, towards the west end of the pines. In summer, I call this section ‘Butterfly Alley’ as the path is lined both sides with Hemp Agrimony, Fleabane and Silverweed – all of which are ultimate butterfly attractors. They are dying back now, except for the odd Fleabane flower adding a splash of yellow to the scene. Despite it being late Autumn we, amazingly, spot two species of butterfly, a lovely bold Red Admiral and a not so common Wall Brown. Lifecycles of all forms of nature seem now to take unusual turns and these late butties are no exception. Climate change is clearly affecting what is seen and, most strikingly, when it is seen. There are still ripe blackberries on the brambles, the first wave of which we were nibbling on in July.

A Green Woodpecker yaffles away somewhere within the woods and we stop to watch a Treecreeper scale an orangey Scots Pine, looking very like a mouse with a beak before it disappears behind the trunk. Just before the entrance to the back of the pines and the ‘cross-tracks’ a burst of loud birdsong has us swivelling round to a low bramble bush, covered in late flowering honeysuckle and a few trailing strands of wild hops. A small, rufous brown bird skulks between branches before calling once more and then flying low and fast 20 yards to the left and into another bramble. Cetti’s Warbler, usually only heard, but this time seen as well.

My guests split into two groups of five and each group takes a turn to mask up and spend a quarter of an hour in Jordan Hide, which looks out over the former Iron Age fort, home to the Iceni, before being taken by the Romans in AD47. The most special inhabitants of this area now, however are the UK’s only breeding colony of majestic Spoonbills. They have dispersed south now for the winter, but it was another hugely successful breeding season with 50+ ‘teaspoons’ fledged from the 25 or so pairs who have chosen this undisturbed idyll as their home. We do see two more Great White Egrets, stalking in ditches, and three different Marsh Harriers swooping low over the reed fringed lagoon, disturbing huge flocks of Wigeon and Teal which have arrived for the rich winter grazing. Suddenly, we catch something coming in low and extremely fast from the left side of our field of view. Looking for a Teal lunch, a Peregrine powers towards the flocks of wildfowl, scattering them even further. The dozen or so handsome Belted Galloways seem very non-plussed and continue to chew the cud.

Before we settle down to a well-earned and delicious packed lunch, provided as part of the ticket by the Courtyard Café, there is time for one more special bird. Andy the warden has told me of a Siberian Stonechat, a scarce migrant and cousin to our fuller coloured Common Stonechat, that has been hanging around near the gate that looks out from the back of the pines towards Burnham Overy Staithe. Sure enough, a quick scan of the adjacent hedgerow and we have picked out this pretty little bird darting out to catch flies before returning to its perch on the hedge. Another new species for many, which puts broad smiles on our guests faces as we settle down on some fallen pine trunks in a sunny little glade, tummies rumbling.

Having refuelled we head through the far west end of the pines, passing a single wild asparagus plant, which sports bright red berries and can be found here and there along the north Norfolk coast. The pines end abruptly and we are faced with an altogether different landscape, or rather dune-scape. This stretch of dunes, leading to Burnham Overy Staithe, is well known in birding circles as a hotspot for rarities. The undulating slopes, covered in layers of thick mosses and lichens, is punctuated with various shrubs and bushes which provide shelter and a food source for hungry and exhausted migrant birds that alight here while passing through on spring and autumn migration. Hawthorn, brambles, shrubby sea blight, sea privet and sea buckthorn can all hold something special and so we choose a good vantage point to scan through likely hiding places. A small flock of Linnets flit noisily between bushes, while a pair of Stonechat perch in classic pose atop a large bramble bush. As a group of 8 Redwing pass trilling overhead, we also spot a Song Thrush enjoying a bounty of Hawthorn berries. Switching our eyes to the dune floor I show our guests a range of lichen – Reindeer Moss, a lichen with antler-like shapes, Pixie Cups and the extremely rare Usnea articulata, the String of Sausages Lichen. There seem to be Holkham speciality species across every range of flora and fauna and so the ‘Safari on Foot’ suits people with a very wide range of interests.

Skirting the seaboard edge of the dunes we notice a lone and distinctive fungus, bang in the middle of a patch of Marram Grass. Looking for all intents and purpose like a yellow version of the Fly Agaric (the classic red and white fairy tale toadstool) we photograph it and consult the field guides I always carry with me. Unable to ID it in the field, I later contact some of my Twitter naturalist friends and discover it is a Dune Roundhead (Stropharia halophilla), a rather rare fungus that is thought to have a saprophytic relationship with the Marram Grass litter.

Dune Roundhead
Dune Roundhead

We half expect to flush a Woodcock or Short Eared Owl as we work our way through the bumps and valleys to the staithe end of the dunes. Several have been reported here in the past few days, but today we don’t get lucky. We work our way down to the western end of the dunes and find a bump suitable for viewing the grazing marsh to our left. This has been a favoured area for our now seemingly resident group of Cattle Egrets. Of course, the best place to starting looking for Cattle Egrets is amongst the cattle. The herd of Devonshires closest to us, with many calves among them, are contentedly browsing but seem not to hold any egrets. A Kestrel catches our eye, hovering towards the back of the field before stooping down after a vole. As we follow the hunting falcon, a flutter of white erupts behind it, in the field beyond. From beneath a group of Belted Galloways the Cattle Egrets have emerged, circling low above the cattle before dropping in between their legs, in full if distant view. We count 8 in total, looking slightly scruffy and hunched in comparison to the similarly sized Little Egret.

With the afternoon light beginning to change subtly it is time to change course and head eastwards. We cut directly across the dune scape and onto the beach, the beauty of which words cannot really convey. It really is a question of having to be there. Some moody cloud formations lurk a few miles out over the sea and some small groups of waders and ducks pass westwards just above the crests of the first few waves. The recent very high tides have left an amazing array of sea ‘treasure’ along the strandline and we delight in crunching through thousands of razor clam shells. Sea urchins, oyster shells, slipper limpets and the odd seabird carcass reflect the richness, but also the harshness of life at sea. While discussing the pros and cons of the huge wind farms now installed directly of this part of the coast a Grey Seal bobs around in the breakers, enjoying the surf and a brief spell of sunshine.

Razor clam shells
Razor clam shells

Sea Urchin

The next area to search is a real hotspot at this time of the year for some fantastic fungi. The mixture of salinity, sand and acidic pine needles in the dune slack has proven to be an ideal substrate for some intriguing and rare fungi, which are most abundant, given the right climatic conditions, during the late autumn. So, it’s eyes to the ground in a search for these amazing organisms which lie somewhere between animals and plants, in their very own biological kingdom. Once we have ‘got our eye in’ the fungi seem to be everywhere. There are Dune Waxcaps, with their almost floral structure and deep orange, yellow and red colourings, a couple of dinner plate sized Parasols, beautiful but toxic Deadly Webcaps and glossy red and pink Crab Brittlegills. The strikingly phallic Dune Stinkhorns cause a stir and then we find our jewel in the crown of fungi the Tiny Earthstar – a species that was found only at the Holkham NNR until recently. After a good hour of mycological endeavour, we have some brand-new fungi fans amongst our group.

Deadly Webcap
Deadly Webcap
Parasol
Parasol
Tiny Earthstar
Tiny Earthstar

We wend our way along the dune slack towards the salt marsh and Holkham. Legs are starting to ache now, tummies to rumble and caffeine levels are dropping dangerously low! Before we rest our legs though, we’re hoping to add a few more species to our list (a copy of which is emailed to all guests following the tour) and so we have a scan of the bay area, checking the patches of vegetation and small, salt hardened bushes. Another pair of Stonechats perch and drop from a Sea Blight, while two pairs of Skylarks dance around after each other. On the edge of the bay an Oystercatcher probes the salt marsh and a small group of Brent Geese are busy grazing on the succulent vegetation. Meadow Pipits ‘peep’ overhead and we then hear, before seeing, a huge skein of Pink-feet gliding in very high above us, looking for a suitable spot to whiffle down to for their roost. An amphibian in the shape of a young Common Toad completes our species list for the day, crawling tentatively across the path that leads us through the edge of the woods and to the welcome sight of The Lookout, which is waiting, ready for us, with hot coffee and delicious cakes. Glowing with all the fresh air one could possibly get in a day; we rest our weary legs and reflect on the best bits of a fantastic ‘Safari on Foot’.

If you’d like to experience your own Safari on Foot, there are two more walks remaining this year. Mondays 7th and 14th December, 8am-4pm. Click here to find out more and to book.

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