Finding Nature at England’s Holkham National Nature Reserve: Spring Hares

The dunes at the Holkham nature reserve.

Pineland gave way to rolling dunes, dunes so expansive that the ocean beyond went nearly forgotten. It was low tide and the waves were so far out that there were no crashing sounds to remind me I was seaside. Burrows riddled the hillside and I was still contemplating possible denizens when I arrived at the marshy fields that lined the pathway back toward my hotel. I noticed a brown spot in the distance – a rabbit, a likely resident of the dune burrows I realized. Another spot of brown appeared beyond but longer ears and larger size alerted me that this was no ordinary rabbit, it was a hare. Two hares as it turned out, both disappearing behind a row of tall grasses. I strained for a better look, and then got one as the pair leaped into the air, clearing the grasses as they pummeled one another with their front paws. Boxing European hares!

I’d heard the term ‘mad as a March hare’ before, but it was April and it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be in England at the right time to encounter this odd courtship ritual. I watched as the pair emerged above the grasses again, showering one another with blows. I was giddy with excitement. Spring was the start of breeding and as the sparring pair appeared again, it was clear that their usual nocturnal hours were expanded for the season. I assumed this was a pair of males establishing their dominance, but I saw no female watching from the sidelines. 

Another pair of hares a few fields over, equally far away but at least free from visual barriers, made me reconsider my male versus male theory. One of these hares mounted the other, only to have the mountee turn and smack it away. The mounter tried again, but the smacker ran several meters. The mounter pursued, but the forerunner whirled around, reared up on its hind legs and pounded its forepaws into the oncoming hare. As the series of behaviors repeated again and again, I became convinced that this was a female rejecting a male’s advances. One more dueling pair on my way home reinforced this notion and I began to question whether the first pair I’d seen had also been a male-female combination. 

A little research confirmed my new suspicion that the boxing behavior is generally female resistance rather than a male dominance display. Not surprisingly, the males are always ready to mate. The females, on the other hand, are only receptive for a few hours during their six-week reproductive cycle, so spend much of their time resisting overly amorous males. Even when a female is ready to mate, males must first pass her physical challenge. She forces her suitors into a race that ends when only one male remains at her side. Having proven his stamina, important in a species that relies on out-running predators for survival, the male’s prize is a punch-free chance to breed.

Armed with my new information, and under the delusion that this would be a common sight given the three interchanges I’d seen in a row, I scanned fields everywhere and everyday for a pair close enough to photograph. Sadly, it never happened. I never even saw one other hare, much less a boxing pair. Norfolk, home to the Holkham reserve where I saw my encounters, is one of England’s strongholds for European hares but the country’s hare population overall is down by 80% and continues to decline. Changes to agricultural practices, including new winter crops, pesticide use and fewer field-lining hedgerows, and the fact that hunting continues at levels incongruent with the now diminished hare population, has made the ‘mad March hare’ all but disappear in many parts of England. I for one hope the trend is reversed; for what a sad state of affairs if Alice in Wonderland permanently lost one of the most entertaining guests at her tea party.

View of the coastline at the Holkham nature reserve.

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Finding Nature on England’s Norfolk Coast: Titchwell Marsh

Bird blinds at Titchwell Marsh. The older abandoned model is in the foreground, new ones in back and a flock of Brent Geese is in the water between.

Titchwell, I was told by the pair of local birders I’d met while watching spoonbill courtship (see my previous blog), was THE place to ‘twitch’ (birdwatch) along the Norfolk Coast. Given the parking lot was filled with people carrying binoculars and spotting scopes, it was clear they were not the only birders to feel this way. I joined the procession down a small wooded trail, through a bird lover’s dream giftshop, past an array of bird feeders and nest boxes, and beyond signs for trails to varied habitats that I’m sure were lovely but were clearly not the main attraction. The pack led on to a levee, flanked by wetlands to either side and the open ocean in the distance. It was here that people spread out; some stopping to gawk at a godwit, others seeking a warbler flitting in and out of reeds, one group audibly gasped as a marsh harrier clawed at some unidentified prey in the grasses and tisked as it came up empty, and all had an impeccably behaved dog at their side. An old, wooden bird blind was covered in nesting gulls and its replacement were the fanciest bird blinds I’ve ever seen. Educational signage lined the cleverly human-shielding walkway that kept birds in the water on the opposite side unaware of human approach. The blinds themselves were bright and spacious, two buildings designed for optimal views of saltwater habitat from one and freshwater from the other. They looked more like cafes than blinds. I found myself scanning the back wall for the possibility of an espresso machine. Titchwell was undeniably a place designed for people to enjoy birds, but one bird seemed intent on enjoying the people too.

Robin perched atop a spotting scope.

It was a robin. A beautiful bird with trilling song but one too common to draw much local attention, except for this one. This robin stalked the picnic tables beside the shop’s food concession. Whereas other birds mobbed the feeders, this one stole crumbs from under sloppy eaters. One man generously crumbled bits of bread into his palm and the robin hopped right onto the table to snatch from this spread. When no other crumbs were to be had, the robin landed on an unattended spotting scope. It seemed to puff its chest and sing slightly more exuberantly from this prime position, as if boasting about the most state-of-the-art perch it had ever found. Perhaps it too was seeking a cappuccino at its posh people-watching site.

Robin perched atop a spotting scope.

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Finding Nature on England’s Norfolk Coast: Holkham National Nature Reserve

A pile of whipped cream and strawberries sat before me as word rippled through lunch at the lovely Victoria Inn restaurant that a pair of Eurasian spoonbills was courting at one of the neighboring bird blinds. I shoveled my ‘Eton Mess’ into my mouth as politely as possible before grabbing my camera bag and venturing into the dreary drizzle. 

A long driveway led from the Inn directly into the Holkham National Nature Reserve. Various geese, coots, moorhens and ducks milled about the marsh on either side, but I gave no more than a cursory glance. I was on a spoonbill mission. I turned down the trail that listed a bird blind among its features and followed a wooded trail along the backside of the wetlands. I was beginning to wonder whether I’d missed my turn-off when signage led me down an even smaller trail to a wooden blind. I crept up the steps and carefully pushed open the door, not wishing to disturb whomever might be inside. I needn’t have worried. It was pitch black with windows tightly shuttered. I lifted the nearest for some light and settled on the bench. 

Marsh Harrier at Holkham National Nature Reserve.

I expected to face a pond, but instead stared at an open field with tree-lined ridges beyond. I scanned the area through my lens: an Egyptian goose on a pine tree at the edge of the woods, a marsh harrier on a fence post in the distance, and barely visible beyond that a couple of trees appeared to be full of cormorant nests. I stared at the field before me wondering what wildlife marvel might stage there at the right time of year. Maybe the impressive winter flocks of pink-footed geese that the park was famed for? It was a bit late for the spectacle on my April visit, but maybe I’d see at least one. 

The door creaked open and a British couple joined me in the blind. They too had heard about the spoonbills, and unlike me, they knew what they were looking for. The white flashes I’d written off as egrets flying beyond the ridge, were in fact spoonbills. The birds were terribly far away and it took staring at them through my lens an incredibly long time before I glimpsed one of their distinctive bills. It was hardly the view I’d hoped for and my face must’ve shown my disappointment for my companions were quick to point out the novelty of the sighting – Eurasian spoonbills hadn’t bred in England for 300 or so years and this was one of only a couple known locations in the country to observe the return. The information did give me a new appreciation for the weaving flight, clearly a courtship dance even at this distance. There were no photographs to be taken of the spoonbills at my distance but as a consolation prize, my wish to see a pink-footed goose was fulfilled as one landed in the field in front of the blind.  

Pink-footed Goose at Holkham National Nature Reserve.

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