Norfolk has some of the best natural life in the country, and Winter is the best time to see some of it! Why not head out on a trail to see how many you can spot…
One of the great winter wildlife spectacles to enjoy is huge skeins of pink-footed geese. More than a third of the world’s population of this species spend the winter in Norfolk with peak numbers present in January and February. These geese are very noisy both in flight and on the ground. They roost together at night in huge numbers on remote parts of the coast and their dawn and dusk flights between inland feeding areas on farmland and these coastal roosts are an amazing wildlife sight.
You can enjoy watching pink-footed geese at NWT Holme Dunes, NWT Cley Marshes, NWT Hickling Broad and NWT Martham Broad nature reserves. As well as the pink-footed geese also look for migratory brent geese on the saltmarshes as well as the resident greylag, Canada and Egyptian geese.
Snow buntings are special! These small birds breed further north in the Arctic than any other small perching birds (passerines) and they seem to bring a touch of arctic wildness to Norfolk shores each winter. In flight they look mainly black and white with large white patches on their wings and tails, with dark wing tips. The shingle ridge between NWT Cley Marshes and NWT Salthouse Marshes is one of the top spots to see them.
Grey seals have their pups in the middle of winter – December and January are peak times for females to give birth in Norfolk. Unlike the smaller common seals which give birth in the summer, grey seal pups are suckled for three weeks by their mothers and remain on the beach for much of this period.
Should you come across grey seal pups please view from a distance and don’t disturb them – they may appear deserted but the mother is usually nearby out at sea. Norfolk has nationally important numbers of this exciting marine mammal and all around the Norfolk coast you may be lucky enough to spot a seal’s head appearing as they surface from diving for fish.
One of our strangest and most mysterious of plants! It produces milky white berries from December. Look for the evergreen leaves of mistletoe amongst the branches of apple and pear trees in orchards. It also favours poplar, lime and hawthorn trees but does occasionally grow on other trees. Can you find an oak tree in Norfolk with mistletoe growing on it? It has not been recorded on oak for over a century in Norfolk.
The coldest days of winter are also the best times to enjoy the spectacle of birds gathering to roost communally. NWT Hickling Broad nature reserve has a wonderful sunset wildlife spectacle which can be viewed from near Stubb Mill. Up to one hundred marsh harriers fly in at sunset to roost on the reserve and with luck you will see hen harriers, barn owls and perhaps even Chinese water deer while you wait. This is a top site for spotting common cranes which also regularly roost on the reserve. An unrivalled wildlife spectacle and unique to Norfolk!
Norfolk has other roost spectacles: starling flocks which put on amazing aerial displays before roosting in reed beds, pied wagtails roosting in trees in busy shopping streets in the heart of Norwich, and the noisy spectacle of more than 10,000 rooks and crows which roost in the Yare valley at Buckenham Marshes – the largest regular winter corvid gathering in England.
Another noisy, roost spectacle can be enjoyed at the other end of the county: Bewick’s and whooper swans roosting in thousands on the Ouse Washes at Welney where they can be viewed under floodlights at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre.
Sunny winter days between November and February are the very best times to enjoy drakes flaunting their finery. Not only are wildfowl present in their highest numbers at this time of year, they are at their brightest and best, with a bigger range of species to discover than at any other time of year. Cold spells may bring in rare species such as smew and goosander and along the coast look for scoter and red-breasted mergansers. All those bright colours on the drakes are there for a serious purpose, to attract a mate.
Winter is the time when, with much head bobbing, tail waggling and frenzied swimming around, these bright colours are flaunted. On the coast enjoy some winter colour, teal greens, the warm rufous browns of wigeon, smart black and whites of dapper ‘tufties’, golden yellow eyes of – you guessed it – goldeneyes and the shining blues on mallard wings.
The rainbow nation of ducks is one of Norfolk’s great winter wildlife spectacles, so wrap up warm and enjoy some winter colour at places like WWT Welney.
Marvel at mammals
Winter is a good time to be on the lookout for mammals. With autumn gales having swept the trees bare of leaves, the fields ploughed and crops still low, winter is the best time to spot many species. Grey squirrels will be active on sunny winter days retrieving their autumn nut and acorn caches. Hares if they choose can cast their cloaks of invisibility even in a bare ploughed field, but on the move they are easy to spot loping across open farmland.
Woodmice and voles may be attracted to bird feeders in hard weather, look for them foraging on spilt seed beneath your garden feeders.
We don’t usually associate flowers with mid-winter but you can enliven any winter walk by seeing just how many plants in flower you can spot. Even in December you are likely to spot species such as red and white dead nettle, dandelion, daisy, yarrow, chickweed and ground ivy with flowers.
By January the very first snowdrops, celandines and even marsh marigolds may start to flower if the weather is mild. It is cheering that even in the depths of winter there is still so many signs of life and new growth to spot. Look for hazel catkins along hedgerows or in the garden golden yellow aconites. Winter is full of surprises, including many out of season flowers, if we keep our eyes open.
Woodlands are brilliant places to visit in winter. The woods are laid bare and it is time to explore the architecture of trees: the twisted, deeply grooved trunks of sweet chestnut, the smooth elegance of beech and the wiry tangles of hawthorn. As you walk through the woods you may be accompanied by a mixed flock of tits and finches.
Long-tailed tits are often the core members of the group, and the noisiest, though usually there will be blue tits, great tits (pictured) and chaffinches too. Treecreepers, nuthatches and marsh tits are all still common in suitable habitat across the county.
Look out for signs of spring approaching
While February can be the coldest month of the year there are always signs to spot that spring is around the corner. Along hedgerows and road verges the first primroses and celandines may be seen. On mild days towards the end of the month these early flowers may even attract emerging queen bees. As the days lengthen birds begin to sing. In the garden listen for song thrushes, great tits and dunnocks and perhaps even the drumming of great spotted woodpeckers.
Towards the end of February garden ponds may be visited by frogs and toads recently emerged from hibernation. In the countryside cock pheasants begin to gather their harems and you may spot the males fighting noisily; this is also a brilliant time to look for the first hares boxing.