Norfolk may well be the bird watching capital of Britain. It certainly has Premier League status nature reserves – just the names of Titchwell, Cley, Holkham, Blakeney, Snettisham and Welney make birdwatchers weak at the knees.
And there’s plenty to see whatever the time of year.
Watch the winter migrants on the coast, or the spectacular raptors coming in to roost in the Broads; listen to enchanting dawn chorus in the spring in ancient woodlands, or marvel at the nesting peregrines over summer on the Norman cathedral right in the heart of Norwich.
From speciality birds in Norfolk such as the marsh harrier, bittern and stone curlews to easily recognisable birds like kingfishers and geese, Norfolk has a stunning range of bird life, and beautiful nature reserves in which it can be discovered.
Common birds in Norfolk range from ghostly barn owls cruising along field margins to the bright flashes of kingfishers hunting along a river. Cetti’s warbler sing loudly from rustling reedbeds and moustached bearded tits join the warblers with their pinging call.
Norfolk is a birdwatchers’ paradise and a wonderful place for children to begin to learn about their feathered friends. With child-friendly visitor centres and nature reserves, you’ll find all the help and information you need to get started.
For many birders, NWT Cley Marshes is a compulsory port of call. This peerless nature reserve, the oldest in the county Wildlife Trusts movement and still among the most celebrated, has such a range of habitats and attracts such a diversity of birds that it is a birder’s default choice for Norfolk’s splendid birds.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s work at Cley has provided a template for nature conservation which has been copied across the country.
Cley Marshes comprises shingle beach, saline lagoons, grazing marsh and reedbed that support large numbers of wintering and migrating wildfowl and waters, as well as speciality birds such marsh harriers, bittern and bearded tits.
At Norfolk’s northwest corner, where The Wash meets the North Sea, Holme Dunes is superbly located to attract migrating birds.
It also holds a variety of important habitats which support numerous other wildlife species including natterjack toads, butterflies and dragonflies, as well as a large number of interesting plants. Various military remains from the Second World War can be glimpsed around the reserve, including the remnants of a target-railway used to train artillery.
Holkham Nature Reserve is vast, with rugged coastal wetlands, saltmarsh, dunes, pinewoods and scrub, grazing marsh and foreshore. it stretches from Burnham Norton to Blakeney and covers about 3,706 hectares. It is possible to explore most of the area by following footpaths from the main car parks. The core section of the reserve, from Wells to Holkham Bay, is crisscrossed by paths allowing access through the pine woodland. Recently Blakeney has seen the first recorded sighting of the Balearic shearwater seabird, Puffinus mauretanicus.
RSPB Snettisham has amazing displays of waders and wildfowl, attracted by the mudbanks and salt marshes of The Wash. Norfolk bird watching offers a breathtaking flight of up to 50,000 wading birds leaving the mudflats of The Wash and landing in front of Snettisham’s hides which is one of nature’s most impressive sights. Though waders can be seen on all of the highest tides from mid-July to late May, the best period is from August to January.
RSPB Titchwell Marsh has good birding all year. In Spring you will see migrating waders such as ruffs in breeding plumage, black-tailed godwits and spotted redshanks. Watch marsh harriers perform their amazing ‘sky-dancing’ and listen out for a booming bittern. Watch out for dragonflies and damselflies in summer as well as water voles along the meadow trail. Catch curlew sandpipers and little stint in autumn and roosting birds of prey, rafts of wildfowl and skeins of pink footed geese in winter.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Welney Wetland Centre is internationally-renowned with good sightings all-year round, particularly in the early winter when the Bewick’s and whooper swans reappear. It is also attracts wintering birds of prey including hen harrier, peregrine falcon, merlin and short-eared owl. In the Spring you might see breeding snipe, lapwings and redshanks.
The eco-friendly visitor centre has exhibits about the natural history and culture of the Fens, and there are many nature programmes, trails and hides – and swan feeding in the winter is a highlight.
On the Ouse Washes between the River Great Ouse and the Hundred Foot Drain, this is the largest area of frequently flooded grazing marsh in the UK.
Venture into the Broads and make a stop at NWT Hickling Broad National Nature Reserve, the largest of the Norfolk Broads. Its wide skies and open landscape offer the perfect place for a walk at any time of year, and a boat trip April – September. The reed beds are home to the birds in Norfolk Broads including booming bitterns and bearded tits. On the water look out for great crested grebes and watch the skies for the stunning marsh harriers. You might also spot osprey, spoonbill, avocet and even common cranes which have returned to nest in the area.
Explore RSPB Strumpshaw Fen in the heart of the Broads in all seasons. A number of nature trails lead you through a variety of habitats including reedbeds and woodland. Listen out for cuckoos and drumming woodpeckers in Spring and walk the wildflower meadows alive with colour. Six species of wild orchid can be seen as well as a whole host of dragonflies and butterflies including the rare Norfolk hawker. Keep your eyes peeled for the infamous swallowtails too floating through the summer skies.
And here’s a few others…
NWT Foxley Wood is Norfolk’s largest ancient woodland, believed to be over 6,000 years old. Sparrowhawks and tawny owls breed in the wood and you may well see great spotted and green woodpecker. In areas of young coppice look for birds such as garden warbler, blackcap and whitethroat as they flit through the bushes in search of insects. And of course a visit in the spring will reward with stunning displays of bluebells.
High Lodge visitor centre is in the heart of Thetford Forest, Britain’s largest lowland pine forest. Deep in the maze-like forest you can hope to see species including nightjar, crossbill, woodlark and tree pipit.
At RSPB Berney Marshes and Breydon Water you can experience the wide open spaces of grazing marshes and mudflats. Watch out for owls and birds of prey such as hen harrier quartering the land for mice and shrews and watch the spectacular displays of wintering waders and wildfowl. Huge flocks of golden plover, lapwing and wigeon can be seen both on the water and across the marshes.
In the Brecks NWT Weeting Heath is the foremost place to spot the rare stone curlew, a bird that requires open, stony ground with short vegetation to breed, making this Breckland habitat ideal. That’s where the sheep and rabbits come in handy.
Wayland Wood, near Watton, is a small patch of ancient woodland and nature reserve which is probably the best place in the country to see golden pheasant.
Set up by the Hawk and Owl Trust in 2002, pocket-sized Sculthorpe Moor Community Nature Reserve, in the Wensum Valley, is just over 18 hectares but it’s an excellent chance to get close to birds throughout a patchwork of habitats including wet woodland, hazel coppice, reed and sedge beds, open water and wet meadow.