Coast birdlife top 12
Norfolk is lucky enough to have a long, varied coastline full of wildlife-rich mudflats, estuaries, sand dunes, shingle ridges, beaches and grazing marshes. It's also home to some of the country's top birdwatching sites including NWT Cley Marshes, Holme Dunes and RSPB Titchwell.
Keep an eye out for some of the 12 coastal species on our list below – even if you don’t see them all you’re certain to spot lots of birds on your travels, as well as lots of twitchers!
This unmistakeable black-and-white wader, which happens to be the logo bird for the RSPB, has a unique up-curved bill. In spring and summer the best place to see the species is NWT Cley Marshes, where around a hundred pairs nest; and throughout the year large numbers gather on Breydon Water near Great Yarmouth.
Despite being a relatively common sight on the coast today, the species actually disappeared from most of England in the 19th century, only recolonising East Anglia in the aftermath of WWII, after coastal marshes had been flooded to provide a defence against a possible German invasion.
Find a large marsh or reedbed along the coast and you shouldn’t have to wait too long before there’s a commotion among the local waders and wildfowl, with flocks of agitated birds taking noisily to the air. Often this heralds the arrival of one of the largest and most spectacular birds of prey to be found in Norfolk – the marsh harrier. With an impressive four-foot (c. 120-cm) wingspan, the species is slightly larger and longer-winged than the similar buzzard. Males have distinctive black-and-grey upperwings, which contrast with their chestnut back; females and young birds are a more uniform chocolate brown, with a creamy head and face. In flight the species has a distinctive silhouette, holding their wings in a shallow, streamlined ‘v’.
Like the avocet, marsh harriers were wiped out in England during the 19th century, but since the 1970s have made a remarkable comeback in East Anglia due to determined conservation efforts. Around 450 pairs are found across the UK today, a similar figure to the number of golden eagles found in Scotland!
Common redshanks are noisy, nervous waders that, during the breeding season, make a constant series of yelping calls to distract would-be predators from the presence of their young. In fact they’re pretty noisy birds throughout the year, with their incessant flute-like whistling. Redshanks are a medium-sized, grey-brown wader with striking, long orange-red legs and, in adults, a reddish base to the bill; in their winter plumage they are greyer and less streaked. The similar spotted redshank (mainly an uncommon passage migrant) is slightly larger, with a longer bill, though in summer it sports dark legs and dapper sooty feathering.
Alongside the scarcer avocet, this is our other pied wading bird. It’s a large, noisy and distinctive wader that is common around our saltmarshes, beaches and estuaries, with particularly impressive gatherings in The Wash; small numbers also occur inland. In contrast to its black-and-white plumage, the oystercatcher has a stylish bright orange bill, orange eyes, and pinkish legs. Oystercatchers actually feed using two main methods: those with a more-pointed bill probe for worms in the mud; while those with a blade-like bill use it to hammer or prise open their shellfish prey.
This smallish goose (bigger than a mallard, but smaller than a swan) is a winter visitor in internationally important numbers – around 80,000 birds – to the Norfolk coast, from its Icelandic and Greenland breeding grounds. It is often referred to as a ‘grey’ goose – a term for several similar-looking species including the greylag goose. However, pink-footed geese aren’t really grey in appearance – more an overall dark brown. They are smaller than greylags (which are found year-round in Norfolk), and can also be told apart by their short dark neck, dark face, pink legs (and feet!), and pink-ringed dark bill. The call of the pink-foot is rather shrill and high-pitched, but definitely one of the most evocative sounds of nature to be experienced in Norfolk.
One of the most spectacular birds that visitors to the north Norfolk coast might spot during the summer months, the spoonbill is also our most recent avian colonist – it nested in Norfolk for the first time in over 300 years during 2010. Similar in build to a grey heron, though slightly smaller, the spoonbill’s plumage is completely white, except in the breeding season when adults display a small patch of yellowish feathers on their chest and a shaggy head-crest. By far their most noticeable feature is the one for which they are named – their enormous, spatula-like bill.
Spoonbills feed by swinging their heads from side to side through shallow water. Held slightly open, the bill is packed full of sensors that detect, and then scoop up, prey. For the best chance of seeing spoonbills head to NWT Cley Marshes during the summer months, when small numbers of the species are often be found.
The little egret is a small, all-white member of the Heron family, traditionally found in southern Europe. Their numbers (as well as those of other herons) underwent severe declines in late Victorian times as a result of huge hunting pressures. The reason: egrets’ long, plumed feathers were valued as a fashionable accessory worn in ladies’ hats, with birds slaughtered in their thousands to satiate consumer demand. The plight of egrets acted as a spur to many bird conservationists, both in Britain and across the Atlantic, leading to the formation of the RSPB at the end of the 19th century. A century on and 1989 was a watershed moment for the species in the UK, with an unprecedented number turning up on our shores, from Brittany.
By 1996 UK breeding had begun – in Dorset – and the species was becoming a more common sight along the North Norfolk coast. In 2002 the species nested for the first time in Norfolk: at Holkham, and in the east of the county. And by 2012, around 90 pairs were breeding around the county, including a number of pairs at NWT Cley Marshes, just fifty years after this elegant white heron first graced Norfolk’s oldest nature reserve.
In addition to the thousands of Arctic ducks, geese, wading birds and seabirds that spend each winter around the Norfolk coastline, the county also becomes a second home for a frost-coloured gem of a songbird from the north: the snow bunting. Around a thousand of these chubby sparrow-sized birds arrive from Iceland and settle on our beaches and dunes between November and March, before returning north in the spring to their barren breeding grounds.
As well as Iceland, the species is found right around the top of the globe, breeding in Greenland, Arctic Scandinavia, Svalbard, Siberia and northern Canada. Indeed, the species can rightly claim the title of the world’s most northerly songbird: a single snow bunting was observed at the North Pole in 1987, one of only three bird species to ever be recorded on that sea of ice. You shouldn’t have to go that far to see one though – the winter shingle of NWT Salthouse Marshes is a great place to look for flocks of these delightful birds.
Birds on the coast top 12
Norfolk has the best birdwatching in the UK, and a wide range of coastal nature reserves from which to observe.
Birds in the Broads top 12
You can spot Herons in the unique man-made Norfolk Broads National Park - maybe even an elusive Bittern.
Birds in the Brecks top 12
With its own unique microclimate, the Brecks attracts a range of birds, from Hobbies to Nightjars.