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Broads birdlife top 12

Nestled in the flatlands between the North Sea and Norwich, the Norfolk Broads are one of the UK's most important areas for wildlife. The shallow lakes, marshes, fens, reedbeds and damp woodlands of the Broads contain more than 11,000 different types of plants, invertebrates, birds and mammals. You’ll only see a fraction of these (unless you’re having a very productive day!), but we’ve highlighted (in no particular order) some of the area’s key birds for you to keep an eye out for.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust

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Hickling Broad

Ranworth Broad 

Common crane

Common crane by Geoffrey Tibbenham
When three common cranes appeared on the northeast Norfolk coast in 1979, few would have believed that, just two years later, the species would go on to nest for the first time in centuries. Today, the Hickling Broad area is home to almost the entire British crane population of around 50 birds. Undoubtedly the best place to see them is from the Stubb Mill viewing platform; a number of cranes usually fly into the reeds here around dusk each evening to roost during the winter months. Standing 1.2m (4ft) tall, these impressive birds give a haunting, bugle-like call as they drop from the near-darkness – one of the great wildlife spectacles of Norfolk.

Marsh harrier

Marsh harrier by Elizabeth Dack

The marsh harrier is one of the largest and most spectacular birds of prey to be found in Norfolk. With an impressive four-foot (c. 120-cm) wingspan, the species is slightly larger and longer-winged than the similar (but more rounded-looking) 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!

Bearded tit

Bearded tit by Elizabeth Dack

The bearded tit is not actually a true tit, but more closely related to the Lark family; its other common name is the bearded reedling, which reflects its exclusive attachment to reedbeds. Usually the first sign of the presence of a bearded tit is its 'pinging' call, before a long-tailed, orangey songbird flicks across the reeds. Males have a grey head and distinctive drooping black ‘moustache’. With patience, and a bit of luck, good views can be had as they feed among the reed stems, often in small family groups.

Bittern

Bittern by Jo Garbutt

This strange, cryptic member of the Heron family has one of its UK strongholds among the Broads. Listen out for their ‘booming’ calls – like someone blowing across the top of a bottle – from early March until June (dawn and dusk are the best times). You could catch a glimpse of one in flight at any time of day or year, as they flap quickly above the reedbeds, but these are very secretive birds that seldom emerge from the reeds. If they do their light, straw-toned base colour, which is exotically streaked with darker, almost-black, lines and chevrons, blends effortlessly into its surroundings. Approximately 100 pairs breed each year in the UK, with around a quarter of these found in Norfolk.

Grey heron

Grey heron by Elizabeth Dack
If you don’t see a bittern in the Broads (which, let’s be honest, is likely!), then take solace in its relative, the grey heron. Herons – or ‘harnsers’, to give them their old Norfolk name – are unmistakeable large waterbirds, with long legs, a long bill, and a long neck. They’re generally greyish in plumage with a paler face, streaky neck and black crest. As well as eating fish (including expensive koi carp from garden ponds), herons will take small birds and ducklings, frogs, small mammals such as voles and even the scarce water shrew. We forgive them though, as they’re such stately and impressive birds!

Coot

Coot by Dave Kilbey
A familiar waterbird that’s common around the county in the vicinity of rivers, streams, lakes, marshes, wetlands and Broads. Black and chicken-sized, coots have a distinctive white bill and bill-shield (the expression ‘bald as a coot’ refers to this) and a red eye. When seen out of the water their large, rather reptilian feet are a standout feature. Coots give a variety of loud, distinctive calls. Usually they’re seen swimming out on the open water, but you can occasionally notice them foraging along the water's edge – if you do, try and get a look at those odd-looking feet!

Moorhen

Moorhen by Dave Kilbey

The smaller, more-refined cousin of the coot, moorhens can be distinguished from their ‘bald’ relative by their red-and-yellow bill, greenish legs, and white markings on the flanks. Moorhens also have a white undertail, which can actually be quite easy to see given their habit of flicking their tail as they skulk around the edges of pools and reedbeds.

Reed warbler

Reed warbler by Amy Lewis
A summer visitor from sub-Saharan Africa to English and Welsh reedbeds, reed warblers are an unobtrusive songbird. Warm-brown above and slightly paler below, they have a long, thin bill. However, because they live among reedbeds they can be surprisingly hard to get a good look at and, more often than not, are first located by their noisy, rather angry-sounding song. Reed warblers anchor their cup-like nest of grass to the surrounding reeds – a wonderful feat of avian engineering; these nests need to be well secured, as the species is often the unwitting host parent to an oversized, hungry cuckoo chick!

Sedge warbler

Sedge warbler by Billy Lindblom
What’s that racket coming from the middle of the reedbed? A reed warbler, surely? Well, not necessarily, as there’s another summer visitor with a sound-alike song found in similar habitat: the sedge warbler. Given a good view the two are quite easy to tell apart: the sedge warbler is generally a pale brown in tone, with darker streaking to its upperparts. However, it’s best distinguished from the reed warbler by the distinctive pale stripe above its eye.

Cetti's warbler

Cetti's warbler by David North
Another member of the warbler family that can be found in close proximity to reedbeds, though unlike sedge and reed warblers these plain brown songsters live year-round in the Broads. Cetti’s warblers are notoriously skulking, and not easy to see. However, they are easy to hear, with a distinctive, fluty song that explodes from dense scrub. Surprisingly, the species only colonised southern Britain as recently as the early 1970s and since then has spread northwards, with the Broads a particular stronghold.

Common tern

Common tern by Pauline Saggers
Look out of the Wildlife Centre at NWT Ranworth Broad during the summer and you'll see noisy common terns flying around and perching on the special artificial platforms where they make their nests. Adult terns lay their eggs between the middle of May and the end of July – usually there are two or three blotchy, speckled eggs in each nest. The adult birds sit on these eggs for three weeks before the chicks inside are ready to hatch and peck their way out. These tiny bundles of fluffy feathers are then brought and fed small fish by their parents for around 25 days, before they’re ready to fledge. Come the end of summer and the terns are off back to the coast of southern Africa, where they’ll spend the winter in the warm.

Swallow

Swallow by Gary Cox

Swallows are one of our most cherished summer migrants and a true herald of spring, as they usually arrive with the first signs of clement weather. They spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa, returning to the UK in late March and early April. They have a distinctive long, forked tail that gives them an unmistakeable silhouette in flight. And it’s in flight that you usually see them, as these insectivorous birds spend much of their time on the wing, hunting for flies.

Plumage-wise, their upperparts are a glossy dark-blue, with a contrasting deep-red throat and creamy underparts. Once you get the hang of it they’re pretty easy to tell apart from the other hirundines (swallow-like birds): house martins have a white rump; sand martins are brown and white, with both martins lacking long tail-streamers; swifts (not actually hirundines, but similar in shape) are larger and a uniform black colour.

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