Saturday 22 January 2022

Burwell Fen - Now And Then

Burwell Fen is indeed a place that we visit now and then. It's also "now and then" in the sense that, after I've shown you a handful of photos that I took yesterday, I'll unveil a few pictures from back in October when it looked a little different. And thirdly, although all the photos show the way the area looks these days, I can also remember how it looked long ago. So here we go: Burwell Fen - Now And Then.

Right next to the rough, semi-official car park that stands at the end of a long, bumpy track down to Priory Farm, there is a woodpile that for the last year or two has served as home for a Little Owl. I mentioned him/her many months ago but didn't get a photo, so made sure I got one yesterday afternoon.

Actually there were two owls present, though this one is not so obvious (it's right in the middle of the picture). It's amazing how effectively they are camouflaged among the old logs. They stand just 8 inches (20 cm) tall and presumably must hunt over the surrounding area, but they spend a huge amount of time just perched on their logpile, sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden.

Out on the fen it's much harder to hide and large numbers of waterbirds, mostly Wigeon, were on the flooded areas. This in turn attracts birds of prey like Marsh Harriers and the occasional Peregrine.

There are several Travellers' sites around the Fens, attracted here originally by the seasonal work in agriculture. These days they're more likely to travel in Transit vans than horse-drawn wagons, though they still retain their love of horses.

When I first knew this land it was all given over to agriculture and there would have been farm buildings in the middle of the picture above, but since then it's been bought up by the National Trust and is being returned to something like the Fens were before they were drained; all very much to the taste of wildlife.

Although we didn't see all the birds we'd hoped for, there were plenty of Roe Deer. But now lets skip back to October....

Rather more colourful, though less watery, I'm sure you'll agree. We also got better views of some of the animals that are kept here for conservation grazing, including this strapping fellow...

...separated from us by a fence, I'm pleased to report. Not that these cattle are particularly aggressive anyway.

The walk around Burwell Fen is a simple triangle about 3 and a half miles in length (5.5 Km) with extensive views throughout. One side is part of a dedicated cycleway and is easy walking, the rest can be a muddy, especially after heavy rain and for most of the winter.

It's one of those places that comes under the category of "beautiful but difficult to photograph, or even to explain, the beauty". If you like wide skies, far-reaching views and a feeling of freedom, then this is the place for you.

It's certainly the place for these Konik ponies who range across a wide area and always look particularly wild when there's a wind blowing their tails and manes. And with that we'll leave Burwell Fen - till next time.

Take care.

Sunday 16 January 2022

Staring At A Tree

 A few days ago we drove all the way to Norfolk to stare at a tree.

The tree (no, not the one in the photo) stands in the middle of a paddock. We spent most of the very chilly morning staring at it.

Not content with that we walked all around the field to view the tree from different angles and we used binoculars and a telescope to explore every bough and twig. But to no avail.

Perhaps I should explain. We were not really looking at the tree itself, but for some birds which like this tree above all others in the forest in which it stands. This is what the bird looks like, if you'd like to join in our search.

(from Wikipedia)
It's a Hawfinch, a fairly rare and very elusive bird, which in winter can often be found in this Hornbeam tree, in this paddock, near Lynford Arboretum, in Thetford Forest, in Norfolk. However the Hawfinch seems to keep a very full and complex appointments diary, which on this day involved its presence elsewhere. 

Luckily the low sunlight was playing games with the mist that snaked its way in among the trees and around the Highland Cattle. OK, the photographer got the better of the birdwatcher and I let my attention wander from time to time during the morning.

If you get fed up with searching for the mysterious Hawfinch, you can go to the little bridge on the way back to the Arboretum, where they scatter some feed for other birds who rate a free feed above secrecy and personal privacy.

Among them was this Nuthatch which, while not a rare bird at all, is extremely uncommon in the little bit of country that I call home, so it's always nice for me to see one.

Time to wander back to the car and eat some packed lunch before going off on another stroll towards the lakes along the valley of the River Wissey. Sometimes it's best to forget your intended goal and just see what turns up.

We did see some common water birds and a very dapper little Stonechat, who was showing himself off in the sunshine. But there was just about time to go back for one last attempt to find our Hawfinch. And there it was, rather distant as they always are, and too far away for a photo, but unmistakable with that huge seed-crushing beak.

That put the cherry on the cake for us, as they say, though the light and atmosphere of the Breckland forests had kept me entertained all day, even without the belated appearance  of the Hawfinch.

Birds seen: Wood Pigeon, Carrion Crow, Rook, Jackdaw, Magpie, Jay, Black-Headed Gull, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-Tailed Tit, Coal Tit, Marsh Tit, Dunnock, Wren, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Robin, Nuthatch, Siskin, Mallard, Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Starling, Pied Wagtail, Coot, Great Crested Grebe, Pheasant, Little Egret, Stonechat, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Redwing, Fieldfare and Hawfinch.

Take care.

Friday 14 January 2022

January Morning

We've had some subtly beautiful mornings this week. Not the kind of beauty you'd notice while scraping ice from your windscreen, it's true, but a sprinkling of gentle magic even so. Just the kind of thing to catch my eye on an early walk around the fields near home.

A handful of memories of how things looked on a particular day in January 2022.

Take care.

Sunday 9 January 2022


Turning inland from the coast, which we visited in our last post, we pass through Holkham village, which was built to house some of the workers from the Hall and its surrounding estate in the eighteenth century. The "cottage" below must have been for an important member of the Hall's staff.

We take the road through the ornate gates to Holkham Hall itself - a building so large, incidentally, that a previous owner's wife trained two Labrador dogs to track and take messages to her husband, wherever he might be in the vast building. But it's not the human aristocracy that I'm trying to find.

No, the real nobility here is the herd of Fallow Deer. You only have to look at the haughty bearing of the buck in the centre of the picture above to see who is the true lord of all he beholds.

The herd has occupied the park for over two hundred years and, like many of the human nobility, they can trace their ancestry back to the Norman invasion. There's even evidence that they were here earlier than that, having been first introduced to Britain by the Romans; so the Normans merely re-introduced the species to England.

Having got here they strutted around, both the Normans and the Fallow Deer, as if they owned the place.

They are medium-sized deer standing perhaps a metre tall at the shoulder and weighing around 50 Kg, though the males may be bigger. There are four basic colour types: Common - which are tan coloured with white spots, but which fade to a mostly grey colour during winter; Menil - which are slightly paler with white spots, and which remain that colour throughout the year; Melanistic - which are almost totally black or dark brown; and White - which are very pale and get more white with age, but they are not true albinos.

The deer are confined to the park but live as wild animals within it, though they do need more management and intervention than some other breeds to maintain a healthy population. And since there are visitors to the park throughout the year they are not much fazed by people taking photos of them, provided you keep a respectful distance.

Most of these pictures were taken with a lens giving 9x magnification and many have been further cropped to give the shots you see here.

In theory I shouldn't have to travel so far to take pictures of Fallow Deer; there's a small population of them, including occasional pure white animals, living around my home area. I see them from time to time from the hides on my local nature reserve, or else way, way across the fields. They are extremely wary and flighty though.  

My local deer are descended from those that escaped from deer parks centuries ago. They cause a good deal of damage to woodlands, gardens and nature reserves, particularly to young plants and trees.

Here in the parkland around Holkham Hall newly planted trees can be fenced off until they are established enough to withstand a bit of nibbling during winter when the grazing is less plentiful.

In the heyday of these parks the deer were kept to be hunted and a buck with a fine set of antlers would have been a sought after prize. They still are, but only for an old chap with a camera. Rather than take flight, this individual gave me a long, bored look, posed for a bit then wandered off unconcernedly.

And there we'll leave these aristocrats of the Norfolk countryside. One day I may even get around to visiting the Hall.

Take care.

Friday 7 January 2022

A Wild Goose Chase

It's the north Norfolk coast in mid-winter. The temperature is hovering just above freezing and there's a strong north-westerly blowing in off the sea. Just the thing to awaken me from my post-Christmas torpor and kick-start this blog into 2022.

If you park in Lady Anne's Drive, opposite Holkham Hall, you'll find wet meadows on either side of the track that are teeming with wildfowl at this time of year. The ducks in the picture above are Wigeon. Although there's only a tiny breeding population in the UK, as many as 450,000 birds fly to these islands every year to spend their winter here. Compared to their usual haunts in the far north, these windswept marshes are their idea of a winter sunshine break!

Pink-Footed Geese also arrive here in huge numbers. 100,000 of these birds arrive along the north Norfolk coast every winter from their summer homes in Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard. Their numbers have increased tenfold in the last seventy years, since selling shot birds was made illegal. They feed on the sugar beet waste left in the fields during the winter harvest. They are supposed to be shy, timid birds, but this one was parading itself up and down just over the fence from the parked cars and assuming perfect guide-book poses.

Oh, and there's a wader in amongst the Wigeon. It's a Ruff, a bird which we see here all year round, but never in large numbers.

But we're off to find some more geese that are much less common visitors. On the way we can pass through a reedbed which, during summer, will be full of birds. The reeds made an interesting picture when looking almost straight into the low sun.

The trouble with wild geese is that they see you just a fraction of a second before you see them and can get a proper look at them. They don't call it a "wild goose chase " for nothing! The one at the back, with the big orange beak, is a Greylag Goose, which are common here all year round. And the others? Well, I hope...maybe...quite possibly....But if we just peer over this wall, we might...

Aha! The geese in the foreground here are White-Fronted Geese that may well have recently arrived from Russia. As you can see it's not the whole goose that's "white-fronted", just a small patch above their beaks. For some reason, with all this huge watery meadow to choose from, they always seem to like this little corner best.

Next we're going to walk through the pines towards the coast. Corsican Pines are not natural here, but were planted on these sand dunes by the Holkham Estate to stabilise the dunes and to act as a windbreak.

It's a grand place for a wander.

You can follow paths back through the trees or along the beach back to Holkham Gap, which is where we started from. 

I try hard not to have any favourites among birds, but it's easy to soon fall under the spell of these tiny, hyper-active little waders. They are Sanderlings.

You can't have too many of them.

If we carry on along the coast there's a little area that's often home to two little birds - Snow Buntings and Shore Larks (known as Horned Larks in North America). We saw a little flock of Snow Buntings flying by, but the Shore Larks remained hidden - it's thought there are only two of them here at the moment. I couldn't get close enough for a photo of the Snow Buntings either, but here's a picture borrowed from Wikipedia....

I can't go to the coast though without getting close to the sea...

Along this stretch of the beach that can involve quite a hike, and negotiating many shallow creeks and pools left by the retreating tide.

This is an absolute wonderland for dogs and many owners exercise their pets here. Horses are also ridden along this section of coast and, in summer, the Household Cavalry come on a summer break here, bringing up to 100 horses with them.

But the airspace all belongs to the gulls. (The above is a composite photo of three different shots) On calmer days than this it's a good place to be peering out to sea through a telescope, searching the waves for birds, but today it's more sensible to flee to the shelter of the woods.

And make our way back to the car where sandwiches and flasks of hot chocolate are waiting.

Besides, the clouds are rolling in over the Freshmarsh, though no rain is forecast, so we should be OK for where we want to go in the afternoon. I'll tell you more next time, but for now I must fly....

Take care.