Winter birding in North Norfolk

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5 Dec 2019

North Norfolk’s magnetism for migratory birds and what to look out for 

In many ways North Norfolk in winter is like one enormous arrivals and departures lounge seeing off the last of the summer migrants preparing to depart our shores while a new group of migratory birds are returning for the impending winter.

The area of coastline boasts extensive areas of sand and shingle beaches, saltmarshes, reedbeds, lagoons, rivers and open water, making it a leading stretch of coastline in the UK for birdwatching. Similarly, inland areas of mixed wetland, countryside and woodland habitats like that here at Pensthorpe Natural Park, prove to be an irresistible haven for birds looking for a safe place to feed and roost over winter.

Among the regular wintering birds are hundreds of thousands of wildfowl and waders escaping colder northern climes to feed on the Wash and its surrounding areas.

Geese are some of the most prolific of the returnees, in particular the pink-footed geese, which arrive back in vast flocks largely from Iceland to feed on arable farmland and the coastal grazing marshes, and dark-bellied brent geese, which return from Siberia to feed on the marshes and tidal areas throughout the winter.

However, numbers-wise it’s the waders who steal the show, with tens of thousands of birds arriving to feast amongst the coastal muds of the Wash. Expect to see oystercatcher, dunlin and red knot over the coming months, many of which can easily be spotted in North Norfolk.

Oystercatcher: Photography by Annie Kerridge

Travel slightly inland and you can expect to see foraging thrush such as fieldfare, often turning up in large groups, and redwing, the UK’s smallest true thrush. We’ve seen good numbers of redwing already this year here at Pensthorpe (between 200 and 300) which could be attributed to changing weather across the continent or changes to food sources. They enjoy eating berries in our hedgerows but rarely visit domestic gardens except in the coldest weather.

Formerly a scarce visitor to Britain, yellow-browed warbler are small and striking birds, which sport a trademark yellow stripe above the eye, are appearing more frequently along the east coast of the UK with Norfolk being one of the best spots to see them. What’s drawing them in from their typical migratory path from Siberia to South East Asia we can’t be sure, but their arrival is a sure indication that migration is underway.

Starling numbers grow as great flocks or murmerations appear in the evening skies, swelled by continental birds from Northern Europe escaping hard winters.

Look a little closer and there are secret migrations going on alongside the more obvious ones. In winter, robins and blackbirds arrive from northern Europe disappearing into our countryside almost unseen, whilst some of our own summer robins begin their own migration south to places like southern France, Spain and Portugal.

Robin

For other species migration isn’t a foregone conclusion; some birds arrive in North Norfolk only in certain circumstances. Waxwing are seen in significant numbers only if the Scandinavian winter forces the move, as is true for bitterns arriving from continental Europe in late winter.

But it’s not only the coast that attracts some of the most impressive species at this time of year. here at Pensthorpe Natural Park we are lucky to have a unique range of diverse habitats which many coastal stretches cannot offer, including wetlands, woodlands, rivers, farmland and gardens. Being just over ten miles from the coastline and offering an abundant array of natural environments, we presents an enticing inland option for many birds and numbers swell accordingly. Our popular Wader Scrape is bustling with winter wildfowl such as wigeon and teal, whilst winter thrushes populate the woodland and farmland. The reedbeds regularly offer sanctuary to both water rails and bittern, whilst the feeding station outside the Woodland Hide can attract pretty species such as siskin and brambling which take advantage of the important free food source during the winter and particularly in cold snaps.

Wigeon

So to make the most of the stunning spectacle of wintering birds we are lucky to enjoy in this region be sure to embrace the crisp weather, grab the binoculars and immerse yourself in the numerous habitats that harbour such spectacular birds throughout this rewarding period.