A wild year in 2012 Norfolk nature calendar
With its expansive skies, wild woodlands and desolate wetlands, Norfolk attracts some of the nation's most spectacular wildlife displays every year. Twelve months of natural entertainment will include vast migrations of wintering geese to booming bitterns and colourful blooms and swathes of wildflowers. CHRIS HILL reports.
This is the best time of year to see the huge flocks of geese for which north Norfolk is so famous, roosting on coastal marshes at Holkham, Blakeney Freshes, Cley, Salthouse and Snettisham. Wrap up warm for an early start to see wintering dark-bellied brent geese, pink-footed geese, white-fronted geese, greylag geese, and quite a few Canada geese too. Look out for winter blooms of snowdrops and aconites at Peckover House and Garden in Wisbech, or Oxburgh Hall near Swaffham. On January 28 and 29, help conservationists survey the region’s wildlife by counting the birds in your garden or local park as part of the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch
Chinese water deer abound on the north Norfolk coast. These small deer love the saltmarsh at Titchwell in north-west Norfolk. Look for their tracks along the footpaths, and if you’re lucky you may just spot one around dusk – although they play a great game of “hide and seek”. Take your loved one on a Valentine’s Day walk from Great Yarmouth station around Breydon Water, where the mud is full of bugs and creatures which attract and feed thousands of winter wading birds.
Mad March hares square up for boxing matches at the RSPB reserve of Havergate Island, near Aldeburgh in Suffolk. As well as brown hares, the island is also home to a variety of migrant wading birds, late departing ducks, barn owls, little egrets and much more. The first signs of spring bring daffodils and ducklings to places like Titchwell Marsh and on the Broads at Blickling.
Graceful breeding cranes can be spotted at Lakenheath Fen nature reserve as they feather their nests in readiness
for this year’s brood. The rare and elusive bittern adds its distinctive booming call to the dawn choruses at Strumpshaw, near Brundall, and Titchwell, in north-west Norfolk. April is a great month for woodland flowers, especially in Norfolk’s ancient woodlands, where you can find wood anemones, bugle and yellow archangel. The Great Wood at Blickling is a fantastic spot for bluebells.
Amorous marsh harriers provide a spectacular “sky dancing” display to cement the bond with their mate. This show of aerial wizardry can be seen above Norfolk reserves including those at Strumpshaw and Titchwell. The wildflower meadow explodes into colour at the 15th-century moated manor house of Oxburgh Hall, near Swaffham. Take part in the RSPB’s annual summer survey of the wildlife outside your home. A great excuse to relax in your deckchair for an hour and get acquainted with your garden visitors.
The majestic swallowtail butterfly is on the wing in early summer, fluttering across Broadland meadows. The RSPB reserve at Strumpshaw is one of the few places left in the UK where you can see this large, bright yellow butterfly, along with places like Horsey, Hickling and How Hill. Get acquainted with your garden visitors.
Newly-fledged young marsh harriers can be regularly spotted taking to the skies above reserves like Titchwell and Strumpshaw Fen. They are still being fed by their parents, but now they have to try and take the food on offer whilst flying. July is also the peak time for butterflies — white admirals, speckled wood and ringlet species can be seen at most Norfolk woodlands, including Sheringham Park and Felbrigg Great Wood. Meanwhile, brown argus, grayling, wall, small copper and dark-green fritillaries can be found on Blakeney Point and the Winterton- Horsey dunes.
Many of the summer visitors to north Norfolk’s coastal habitats are getting ready to leave our shores, whilst wading birds gather in spectacular numbers at Snettisham as they stop to feed for a final few days before flying on to warmer climes.
Noisy groups of bearded tits liven up the reed beds at Titchwell marshes as these elusive little birds make themselves heard throughout September and October. The Norfolk cranes are especially visible in September as they group and feed together on quiet fields in the eastern Broads. Good chance of seeing them in the Horsey-Hickling area, and the field near Winterton dunes. In early autumn, ospreys are regularly seen fishing as they linger on their southward migration. Wading birds can be seen on the reedbed pools and with luck you may catch a glimpse of a water rail feeding along a pool edge.
Autumn brings the gladiatorial red deer rut — the annual show of strength where stags bellow and lock antlers for breeding rights. This impressive display can be seen and heard at Thetford Forest, and on the fields around Dunwich Heath and Minsmere in north Suffolk. It is also the rutting season for fallow deer, which can be seen on the Holkham Estate and in Thetford Forest. A family of otters at Strumpshaw Fen show off their swimming skills for visitors to the RSPB reserve’s Reception Hide and the Tower Hide. Fungi is abundant at this time of year in all its weird and wonderful shapes, colours and names, such as chicken-of-thewoods, beefsteak, waxcaps, candle snuff, stinkhorn and the deceiver. Pink-footed geese provide a memorable experience at the national nature reserve at Holkham as they arrive from Icelandic breeding sites to the north Norfolk coast. October sees the main influx of birds, but when peak numbers are present around Christmas the sight and sound of up to 40,000 birds at the daily dawn and dusk flights gives visitors a breathtaking show.
Grey seal pups are born into colonies at Blakeney Point and Winterton Beach from November. They can be safely viewed from a distance or from a boat trip, but don’t get too close as the pups are rather vulnerable and the mothers and bulls can be aggressive and protective. Both colonies have been increasing rapidly in recent years, with Blakeney’s reaching record levels in 2010/11.
Tens of thousands of starlings turn the sky black in the evenings as they unite in massive undulating clouds. Just before dusk, vast numbers of the birds come in to roost in shows known as “murmurations”, which can be seen at many sites across the region, including RSPB reserves at Strumpshaw Fen in the Broads, Snape in Suffolk and Fen Drayton in Cambridgeshire.
n Compiled with the help of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, the National Trust, and Natural England.