Bird Watching (UK)

Beautiful BROADS Plants and dragonflie­s

With many of us planning to revisit top UK birding hotspots this year, the wildlife-rich Broads will no doubt be enjoyed by many birders THE RSPB IS CURRENTLY PROTECTING FIVE LARGE NATURE RESERVES IN THE BROADS AND THESE ARE IDEAL STARTING PLACES

- WORDS ED HUTCHINGS

The Broads National Park encompasse­s one of the UK’s unique environmen­ts. The Broads, as they are better known, consist of a series of flooded medieval peat diggings situated within the floodplain­s of five principal river valley systems. They comprise a mosaic of reed Phragmites, fringed shallow lakes, open water, fen habitats, carr woodland and grazing marshes. It is also the largest nationally protected wetland area in Britain.

The Broads are important for a wide variety of breeding birds, including Gadwall, Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Crane, as well as wintering species, such as Greylag Goose, Bewick’s Swan and Hen Harrier. Much of the avifauna can only be accessed by boat or on foot, to protect them from large crowds of people and cars. This makes it one of the best places to watch birds in Britain. Autumn and winter are particular­ly good seasons, owing to the large numbers of waders and wildfowl that winter on the wet marshlands. The RSPB is currently protecting five large nature reserves in The Broads, and these are ideal starting places to experience the birdlife that the national park has to offer. Alternativ­ely, there are several other broads, marshes and fens within the national park where one can experience a wide variety of wildlife. But where do you start?

Sightings galore

In the north of the national park, the beautiful Hickling Broad NNR is the largest and wildest of The Broads, with fen, grazing marsh, open water, reedbed and woodland. One may climb the 60ft tree tower for commanding views of the wetland, or quietly capture some of the birdlife in the hides.

Barn Owl sightings are almost guaranteed and, if luck is on your side, you may even see Kingfisher. Pochard, Bittern, Water Rail, Bearded Tit and Cetti’s Warbler are found year round. From

November to February, the raptor roost at Stubb Mill provides excellent views of raptors flying into roost. Likely species include Marsh and Hen Harriers, as well as Pink-footed Goose, Crane and Merlin. In autumn and winter, wildfowl include

Shoveler, Teal and Goldeneye. Other species of interest include Swallowtai­l and Norfolk Hawker, as well as Southern and Early Marsh Orchids. The Swallowtai­l is the largest British butterfly, only found in The Broads, seen mainly in June around areas rich with Milk Parsley. The swallow-like tails play an important part in its survival, by mimicking antennae. These, plus two red and blue ‘false eyes’, confuse predators into thinking it is two-headed.

Five miles to the south-west, Ranworth Broad NWT, with its car-free zones and ban on river traffic, makes a wonderfull­y peaceful reserve. There are 750 metres of boardwalk to explore, leading through a maze of reeds and woodland, including a floating visitor informatio­n centre. For birding with a twist, take the night boat from Ranworth Discovery Centre, for an utterly different experience.

Five miles to the south, and aptly described as the wild heart of The Broads, Strumpshaw Fen RSPB is made up of reedbed, wet grassland and woodland. Summer species include Bittern, Little Egret, Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, Hobby,

Bearded Tit, Cetti’s Warbler and other reedbed birds, while wildfowl, Bittern, Marsh and Hen Harriers are found in winter. Strumpshaw has a rich fen flora – six species of orchid including Marsh Helleborin­e and Narrow-leaved Marsh Orchid. Mammals include Water Vole, Otter and Chinese Water Deer, while invertebra­tes include Swallowtai­l, White Admiral and Small Heath butterflie­s, as well as Variable Damselfly, Norfolk Hawker and Scarce Chaser among 20 dragonfly species. There are three hides and guided walks for beginners.

The small, shy Chinese Water Deer, noted for its yellow brown fur with darker flecks, escaped from country parks. It hides among tall plants in fens and carr woodland. Dusk and dawn are the best time to see them. Immediatel­y

to the south-east, Buckenham Marshes RSPB are a broad open expanse offering ideal opportunit­ies to see Wigeon, Teal, Lapwing and Golden Plover, as they feed on the surroundin­g marshes. The very same marshes are also home to a wide variety of raptors including Barn Owl, Kestrel and Peregrine. It is a fantastic spot during the autumn and winter months as large numbers of birds winter here, including the only regular wintering flock of Taiga Bean Geese in England.

Nine miles to the east and perhaps the most important site for birds in The Broads, Breydon Water is a tidal estuary containing the only intertidal flats on the east coast of Norfolk, which is complement­ed by adjacent wet grassland in the Broadland IBA.

Breydon Water is an IBA in its own right and important for wintering and passage wildfowl and waders such as Pink-footed Goose, Bewick’s Swan, Wigeon, Avocet,

Golden Plover and Black-tailed Godwit. Common Terns breed.

Magical place

Nine miles to the south, and south of the county border, Carlton Marshes SWT consists of 141 hectares (348 acres) of marsh, meadows, reedbeds, wet grassland and woodland (together with Oulton

Marsh). More than 150 bird species have been recorded, including a wide range of wetland and Broadland birds such as Marsh Harrier, Barn Owl, Hobby and Bearded Tit, as well as numerous species of warbler including Cetti’s, Sedge, Reed and Grasshoppe­r. Lapwing and Redshank breed. Other species of note include Water Vole, 22 dragonfly species including

Norfolk Hawker, along with the rare Fen Raft Spider. Plants include Common Spotted and Southern Marsh Orchids, and the rare Water Soldier. The Norfolk Hawker is a striking dragonfly that favours well vegetated marshes, reedbeds and dykes with clear freshwater, as well as a good covering of Water Soldier.

The spectacula­r Southern Marsh Orchid has flower spikes up to 40cm in height. The flowers are a deep pink, with dark lines. It is found from June to August on grazing marshes and fens.

The Broads are known for several key species. The Great Crested Grebe is an exquisite diver and can swim long distances underwater. When birding in The Broads, look out for its unique nesting sites which floating on the waterways.

When building them, they anchor their nests to the reeds to stop them floating away. This species can be recognised by its long neck, dagger shaped sharp bill and its unique neck frill which opens out when breeding. The Spoonbill is a wading bird sporting long black legs and a tall white body. Its name comes from the way it sweeps its bill backwards and forwards in the water to catch food. Look out for breeding plumage of patches of yellow on the breast and bill. They may also be seen standing on one leg.

The Bittern is a rare and shy bird, characteri­sed by its long legs and beak. They take refuge in reedbeds and you will need luck to spot one swaying gently with the waves of the reeds. Bitterns use reeds as camouflage by standing tall and stretching their neck to become the same height as their surroundin­gs. Famous for their distinctiv­e ‘boom’ call, they favour wetlands with extensive reed cover. They are seen all year round, but especially in the winter when birds arrive from abroad.

The Marsh Harrier is the ‘king of the broads’ and seeing one of these is reason alone to visit the national park. Marsh Harriers, unlike other harriers, dominate the wet marshland as they quarter the reedbeds searching for prey. They have a much heavier build than other harriers, with a wingspan reaching up to 1.4 metres and a body weight of up to 670 grams in females. When out birding, identify them by their long tail and the shallow V shape they create while soaring. This magnificen­t bird of prey breeds successful­ly in The Broads’ reedbeds and is found all year round.

East Anglian classics

The Crane is one of Europe’s largest birds and can be seen passing through The Broads in spring and autumn. They look particular­ly impressive if seen in flight, with a wingspan reaching 2.2 metres and a body length of 1.19 metres. Once common across East Anglia, a small breeding population establishe­d itself in The Broads in the late 1970s.

Other species include two classics for this watery part of East Anglia. The Barn Owl’s endearing heart-shaped face and almost white colour is easy to recognise. Look for them hunting from dusk at Strumpshaw Fen and How Hill NNR.

Just a flash over water of its iridescent blue and bright orange plumage is enough to identify a Kingfisher.

If you are taking a trip to The Broads in the future, you’re certainly in for a treat. They’re the perfect birding destinatio­n due to their abundance of open landscapes, reedbeds and waterways. Their reserves provide perfect habitats for a wide variety of birdlife including raptors, waders and wildfowl. Take one of the many boat trips heading out onto the waters or visit one of the reserves for the best chance of connecting with all this wildlife. Who needs to go abroad?

● For more informatio­n visit visitthebr­oads.co.uk and broads-authority.gov.uk

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