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The 10 best bird watching sites in East Anglia

PUBLISHED: 16:17 07 March 2018

Bittern at Minsmere. Picture: ROBERT MCKENNA

Bittern at Minsmere. Picture: ROBERT MCKENNA


Norfolk and Suffolk are two of the most important bird watching counties in the UK – and there’s plenty to see year-round. Here is our top 10 of places to explore a region brimming with birds.

Cley, Nature reserve
Cley Nature reserve visitor centre, nature reserve
Archant © 2005
(01603) 772434 Cley, Nature reserve Cley Nature reserve visitor centre, nature reserve For:Edp Copy:Edp Archant © 2005 (01603) 772434

Norfolk and Suffolk are two of the most important bird watching counties in the UK – and there’s plenty to see year-round. The area is blessed with a wide variety of bird species across its miles of coastline and inland areas such as the Brecks with its unique microclimate. It attracts great number of migratory birds during the spring and autumn due to its position, sticking out into the North Sea towards Scandinavia. Spring sees the departure of the winter wildfowl and waders and the arrival of the first birds from their wintering grounds in Africa. By mid-April, thousands of birds are pouring along the coast on their long journeys north. The beautiful nature reserves across the region which provide unspoilt feeding and breeding grounds for the species provide wonderful vantage points for experienced twitchers as well as a guiding hand, with child-friendly visitor centres, for those who don’t know their widgeons from their pigeons. Here is our top 10 of places to explore a region brimming with birds.

1. Holkham National Nature Reserve

Holkham National Nature Reserve, in north Norfolk, stretches from Burnham Norton to Blakeney and covers about 3,706 hectares. In the late 19th century the 3rd Earl of Leicester planted pine trees on the dunes, creating a shelter-belt to protect the reclaimed farmland from wind-blown sand. Today this ribbon of mature woodland still separates the vast expanse of dunes and flat sand from the farmland behind. On the south side of the pine belt the mixture of deciduous trees and bushes provide excellent habitat for yellow browed and pallas’s warbler. It was also the site for Britain’s only red breasted nuthatch, usually found in America. Listen out for the singing, or croaking, of natterjacks on a spring evening. You don’t need an excuse to explore the bay, surely one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the country, but at high tide it can be a good place to spot divers, grebes and sea ducks.

This Kingfisher was hunting in the ditch on the R/H side of the bittern hide   yesterday afternoon  taken in  poor lighting. This Kingfisher was hunting in the ditch on the R/H side of the bittern hide yesterday afternoon taken in poor lighting.

2. RSPB Snettisham

Snettisham Nature Reserve, near Kings Lynn, is the picturesque venue for a natural phenomenon called the Snettisham spectacular. Birdwatchers flock here to wildlife observation hides giving panoramic views across the saline lagoons, salt marsh and the vast expanse of mudflats that make up The Wash to catch the show at high tide. The encroaching sea takes over the vast mudflats, forcing tens of thousands of knots, a wading bird, to take flight together over and over again until there is no mud to land on and they have to rest on the lagoon the other side of the sand. The spectacular should take place three times at dawn or dusk in March. Check the RSPB timetable at www.tidetimes.org.uk Also keeping crepuscular hours at Snettisham will be barn owls hunting over the saltmarsh. For more information, visit here

3. RSPB Titchwell Marsh Nature Reserve

Located on the north coast of Norfolk, between the villages of Titchwell and Thornham, Titchwell Marsh is blessed with diverse habitats that include reedbeds, saltmarsh and freshwater lagoons where avocets, bearded tits and marsh harriers nest. There’s also a wide sandy beach here, which offers extensive views across The Wash. Avocets, the RSPB emblem bird, can be seen on the fresh marsh, land once farmed but now reclaimed by the sea, all year round but in late spring they will be guarding newly hatched fluffy chicks. At this time of year you may hear from one of the region’s most secretive, but loudest birds – the bittern. Listen out for its booming call like the sound of the wind over the neck of a bottle from deep within the reedbeds. The woodland copses are full of bird song. Listen out for Cetti’s warblers, spotted flycatchers and the soulful purr of the turtle dove.

4. Pensthorpe Natural Park

The 700 acres of the park, in Fakenham, played host to the BBC Springwatch team from 2008 to 2010, taking advantage of the wide range of birds that stop off among the wetlands and farmed fields here or call them home. There are four walking trails to explore with sightings already this here including snipes, oystercatchers, great-crested grebes, lapwings and treecreepers. The park’s team of wardens are on hand to offer spotting advice and on March 23 birdwatching beginners can sign up for a guide on how to identify birds and where to find them. It runs from 10am to 3pm. Lunch is included. Price £25. For more information, visit here

5. Hickling Broads Norfolk Wildlife Trust

The largest of the Broads, NWT Hickling Broad is a year-round haven for wildlife. It is easy to spend a day walking around its trails or taking a boat tour. It is situated on the Upper Thurne river system, which holds a significant percentage of the UK population of common crane as well as important breeding numbers of bittern, marsh harrier, bearded tit and Cetti’s warbler. A barn owl sighting is almost guaranteed. Glimpses of kingfishers are rarer, but they are around. For more information, visit here

6. Cley Nature Reserve

On the edge of the marsh and just outside the north Norfolk village of Cley with its one-car width streets, is Cley Nature Reserve and visitors centre. Cley Marshes, which was bought by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust in 1926 to be held “in perpetuity as a bird breeding sanctuary”, is one of the best spots for bird watching in the UK. A patchwork of reedbeds, freshwater pools, dykes, grazing marshes and saline lagoons provide a habitat to attract a wide variety of birds, such as avocets, bearded tits and bitterns, to feed, breed and rest. The brand new environmentally friendly visitor centre incorporates an observation area and café and has illustrated spotter guides to help beginners identify their finds. For more information, visit here

7. Strumpshaw Fen

This RSPB 2,000-acre wetland reserve about six miles east of Norwich is made up of a mosaic of woodland, reed beds and pools, water meadows and river banks. It supports a wide variety of birds, including and the acrobatic marsh harrier, which performs its breathtaking “sky dancing” in pairs in spring. In the meadows redwings and fieldfares are a common sight. The wet woodlands are key breeding ground for Cetti’s warblers, willow tits and bullfinches. For more information, visit here

8. Breckland

Stretching from Swaffham in the north to Bury St Edmunds in the south, the area known as Breckland is a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the European Union Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds. Its semi-continental microclimate (hot summers, cold winters and low rainfall) attracts some of the country’s scarcest resident birds, such as the hawfinch, lesser spotted woodpecker, goshawk and one of the UK’s rarest songbirds, the golden oriole, occur here and March is the optimum time to seek them. Head for Lackford Lakes to see kingfishers, water rail and tree sparrow or Lakenheath Fen, which is a favourite haunt of bittern, little egret and crane. For more information, visit here

9. Minsmere, Suffolk

The avocet, the bird the RSPB brought back to this country after a 100-year absence, thrive at its nature reserve at Minsmere, near Saxmundham. The elegant wader is just one of its attractions with bitterns, marsh harriers and the widest range of breeding birds in the country calling it home. Come in May to enjoy the sound of nightingales in the woods and see the sand martin colony in the old car park. Binoculars are available for hire. For more information, visit here

10. Dunwich Heath and Beach

The protected Sandling heathland of Dunwich, which forms 1% of the remaining such lowland heathland in the world, offers breeding shelter for Dartford warblers and woodlarks and last year had their first stone curlews nesting there. Hides above the cliffs at Dunwich beach provide the perfect spot to see migrating gulls stopping off on their return journey to their breeding grounds in the north. For more information, visit here

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