Fantastic ideas to enjoy Norfolk nature this Bank Holiday
- Credit: Nick Appleton
Winter is a wonderful time to witness some of Norfolk’s greatest wildlife spectacles, says Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Reserves Officer Robert Morgan.
True winter in Norfolk has become a very short season, normally only appearing for a week or two in the New Year.
Despite our mild weather, the long dark nights ensure the memories of autumn have long passed before we see the promise of spring.
But even in the deepest depths of winter there are wonders of nature to be discovered in our wildlife rich county. Whether on the vast estuarine mudflats, a lonely frost bitten heath or even in your own garden, there are lots to look out for in the winter months.
The keynote of winter is wildlife slowing down, conserving energy, and in a lot of cases – hibernating.
For most birds the marvel of migration means that they can escape the excesses of winter, and for Norfolk that means tens of thousands of waders arriving here from their northern breeding grounds.
Along the shore of tidal mudflats, such as the Wash or Breydon Water, vast flocks of knot and dunlin are constantly on the move searching for food exposed by the retreating sea.
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They are often joined by curlew, grey plover and bar-tailed godwit. Skeins of Brent geese descend on banks of eel grass to graze hurriedly before the tide forces them off again. The occasional pair of shelduck are scattered among them, sifting their crimson bills through the silt, relentlessly searching for mud snails.
The quantity of birds is an impressive sight, even more so, when the incoming tide pushes the flocks closer together and nearer the shore.
Then, almost as one, they take flight and head to a favoured roost. This wondrous spectacle, of so many birds in harmonious flight, suddenly becomes a dramatic life or death struggle as a Peregrine falcon strikes.
The huge flocks whirl and twist, exploding in all directions; trying collectively to confuse their aerial assailant. One less in number, they eventually make it to roost. The waders jostle around, separating themselves by species, then restlessly slumber until the tide turns once again.
The Norfolk Broads in winter plays host to thousands of duck and coot, with our resident mallards, gadwall and tufted duck being joined by their Northern brethren, including large numbers of teal and shoveler.
From the viewing platform at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Ranworth Broad a good range wildfowl can be seen including wigeon, pintail and goldeneye, if you are lucky you may find something rarer, with ferruginous duck and scaup being regular visitors.
As dusk falls hundreds of cormorants arrive from the coast. They first wash the salt from their feathers in the broad, then make their way to the skeleton-like dead alders, bleached white by sun and guano. The Ranworth Broad cormorants form one of the largest winter roosts in the country, and they have been monitored by NWT for over 35 years.
Equally impressive are the 15,000 gulls that spend the night loafing about in the middle of the broad. As the light fades they arrive in a constant stream, and for a period of an hour or more they drop like thick falling snow.
Further inland, a winter visit to one of NWT’s heathland reserves can be equally rewarding with many wonderful winter surprises. At NWT’s Buxton Heath one may find a great grey shrike sat atop a thorny hedge. Although this handsome shrike is rare, the heaths of Norfolk are the best places to find them; discovering one on a cold winter’s day is an absolute thrill. In February, when most birds are silent, the woodlarks start to sing and Buxton Heath is a great place to hear them.
They have a sweet understated fluty song that adds a touch of cheerfulness to a frosty morning. The woodlark is not unlike its cousin the skylark, but has a noticeably shorter tail and deeply undulating flight pattern.
Nearer to home your garden robin will be singing too, its winter song is gentle and melancholic, which fits with the season. It’s also a time to look for brambling mixed with the
chaffinch that hop about beneath the bird feeders. If the weather does start to bite, expect a visit from the fieldfare and redwing, particularly if your garden has berry bearing bushes.
And if a harsh continental winter has pushed birds further West, you may be treated to the appearance of several delightful waxwing, arguably one of our most beautiful birds; cinnamon in colour with a proud crest upon its head.
There are so many winter spectacles to saviour; be it massive swarms of ‘winter’ moth, unhindered by hibernating bats, emerge as one having been triggered by an unknown signal. As with the summertime mayfly the males are stomach-less and will die that evening; to find their flightless mate is their only desire.
For great or small - be it huge murmurations of starlings pulsating above a lonely fen as a drained winter sun drops below the reed tops, or an orb spider’s web, bejewelled with frosty droplets, glistening and shimmering like crystal - winter truly is a wonderful time to watch wildlife.
To enjoy your own winter wonder, head to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust website to find a nature reserve near you: www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk