Generally speaking, birdwatchers tend to gravitate towards North Norfolk and the coast, with the undoubted attractions of the likes of Titchwell and Snettisham. The birding potential of the Norfolk Broads, further south, may sometimes be ignored in an assumption that the area is bound to be too crowded and touristy to allow a relaxed day out in the field.
Yes, there are parts of the Broads that are busy, especially in summer or around Easter time when I visited, but there are other parts that have an abundance of interesting birdlife and where you can spend many a solitary hour, or at least in the company of only a few like-minded souls.
One such hidden gem is Wheatfen, a perfect little piece of natural fenland with wet sallow-alder carrs, native woodland and reed beds preserved by writer and broadcaster Ted Ellis, who bought two marshmen’s cottages and the adjoining land in the 1940s and spent his life managing the habitat and studying the wildlife it attracted. Here you can step back in time to experience the landscape as it must have been hundreds of years ago: wild and beautiful. The earliest records of Cetti’s Warbler in the UK came from Old Mill Marsh at Wheatfen. When I was there in early April the woods were alive with all manner of tits – Blue, Great, Coal, Marsh and Long-tailed. Reed and Sedge Warblers had just returned to the reedbeds and, on the small Broads, Coots and Teal called. It was easy to imagine that you were a million miles away in space and a hundred years in time from the pleasure craft, ice cream salesmen and school parties enjoying the better-known Broads.
A little less off the beaten track, but a highly recommended stopping point nonetheless, is Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden, near South Walsham. This is a natural garden built around a network of flooded ditches that wind through an ancient woodland of oak and beech trees. All three species of woodpecker inhabit the woods and can be heard drumming and yaffling among the trees. Nuthatches and Treecreepers were also making a living high above our heads as we walked down to South Walsham Inner Broad, which is the estate’s private Broad. On a sunny afternoon in April, the garden was full of wild primroses and white wood anemones, with the exotic flowers of the unkindly named Skunk Cabbage fringing the swampy areas like big yellow loudspeakers. We took a boat trip out onto the Broad for a closer view of Great Crested Grebe and their little humbug chicks, a group of Cormorants and the ubiquitous Greylag Geese, nesting on a small island. Our boatman steered us to the far bank and the exposed muddy network of roots of a large fallen tree. As he pointed out a small hole among the roots, there was a flash of blue as the resident Kingfisher left the nest and darted away along the shore among the overhanging branches.
Our next boat trip was on a much larger stretch of water – Hickling Broad. From the visitor centre at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad Nature Reserve, you walk along a boardwalk across the reedbeds. The milk parsley that grows here is the reason the area is so well known for Swallowtail butterflies that rely on the plant for breeding. A little electric boat glides silently through the tall reeds ensuring disturbance is kept to a minimum so that you get the best chance of a sighting of Bearded Tit. We were unlucky the day we went and although we heard the birds, they didn’t grace us with an appearance. What we did see plenty of were Marsh Harriers soaring over the reedbeds. Both at Hickling and at the RSPB’s Strumpshaw Fen, which we visited at day’s end, we were mesmerised by these gorgeous raptors.
The Hickling Water Trail boat takes you to two hides, far out in the middle of the Broad. These overlook two wader scrapes in the making; the dedicated work of one volunteer, Andy Kane, who has single-handedly shifted tons of silt and mud and managed the reedbeds to create an ideal habitat out of an overgrown and neglected mudflat. The Rush Hill Hide is actually also accessible from Potter Heigham Church and is a good spot for migrants in the season.
Both Hickling and Strumpshaw, among many of the other Broads, host wintering geese. I was too late in the season to catch even the tailenders of the annual visitors but, from mid-September until March you get thousands of Pink-footed Geese on the potato and sugar beet fields around the Broads, grazing on the vegetation left by the harvesters. Around Heigham Holmes near Martham, and in the Cantley and Buckenham Marsh areas of the Yare Valley, you can also see over-wintering White-fronted Geese and Bean Geese. Only a few hundred of each species but, nevertheless, the only other regular wintering site of Bean Geese in Britain is near Stirling in Scotland so it’s worth a trip. Although we had missed the geese, our trip to Strumpshaw was far from disappointing. The woodland gave us several close-up sightings of Treecreepers and a lengthy view of a Barn Owl, perched on the edge of one of the boxes put up by the Reserve staff. As the twilight fell the bird surveyed its scrubby territory slowly and carefully, completely oblivious to its human observers. In amongst the reeds, from one of the hides, we glimpsed a Water Rail for a brief second before it stalked out of view. After that, the only evidence it was there was a pick-pick-pick call and one loud diminishing squeal. This was not the only bird heard but not properly seen on my April trip to the Broads. We were staying at Rivers End cottage overlooking the Staithe at West Somerton. To the front of the cottage was the end of a small offshoot of the river with fields and reedbeds further on to each side. Walking alongside the water we saw flocks of grazing Greylags at dusk and heard the boom of a Bittern. Sadly, a few waving reeds were the only physical evidence, and these could well have just been moving in the wind rather than disturbed by a wading bird, but we were optimistic that we had at least had a sighting-by-proxy of the elusive Bittern.
One final recommendation if you’re staying in the Broads and self-catering as we were, has nothing to do with the birdlife. But if you’re looking for something delicious for a meal, pay a visit to the farmer’s market and home-made produce stands at Wroxham Barns near Hoveton. It’s a good place for a souvenir to take home for anyone not lucky enough to have made the trip, too.