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Migration watch: Where to see the birds on North Norfolk's coast

Thousands of knot gather in a Snettisham spectacular (Credit: Ben Andrew, RSPB)

A virtual motorway carries millions of birds through North Norfolk. Each Spring they fly along the East Atlantic Flyway, stop in Norfolk for a few days to feed and build fat reserves to fuel their long journeys to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Russia.

North Norfolk’s coast is one of the best places to watch this annual migration. The birds head north driven to find territory, a mate and raise a family.

Hundreds of millions are on the move each year with some 15 million breeding in the UK. Millions more fly along our coasts and countryside waiting for a clear sky and a southerly wind before moving on. They reverse their migration in the Autumn fleeing the harsh winter and icy winds of Scandinavia and Russia to find a warmer and more hospitable climate. Some stop in the UK, others fly on to Africa.

North Norfolk is renowned as the birdwatching capital of Britain and has some of the very best nature reserves to watch the migration.

The UK’s east coast wetlands, stretching from the Humber to the Thames, form a key part of the East Atlantic Highway. It is one of the world’s most important sites for birdlife and one of their favourite UK migration passages providing food and shelter for birds all year. Some migratory birds, like redshank and shelduck, use the area to breed in spring and summer. Others, like knot and widgeon, spend winter here.

Oystercatcher (Credit: Ben Andrew, RSPB)

North Norfolk - an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - is bustling and busy with birdlife whenever you visit. Species constantly change with the seasons. Twenty-nine bird species use the east coast in internationally important numbers. The rich bug-filled mud on the Norfolk coast attracts huge numbers of oystercatcher, redshank, geese, duck and spectacular numbers of knot.

The coast includes large stretches of open salt marsh, reed beds, mudflats, meadows, sand and pebbles. This diversity appeals to different species. Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Holme Bird Observatory near Hunstanton has recorded 320 different species.

Some favourites in North Norfolk include marsh harrier, hen harrier, spoonbill, avocet, little egret, snow bunting and numerous species of duck and geese filling Norfolk's skies with enormous skeins at dawn and dusk. Oystercatcher, lapwing and knot also gather in spectacularly huge numbers. The sight of a bittern is no longer quite such a rarity at Cley but must still rank among birding highlights.

Your identification skills will be tested by the numerous variety of waders hunting on the shoreline for a rich harvest of food as the tide recedes.

The richness of species is only matched by the opportunities to see them in North Norfolk. Tailor-made nature reserves, some with formal walkways, hides, car parking and shop and restaurant facilities for birdwatchers, have been created all along the coast.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes visitor centre was the first wildlife trust nature reserve in the UK. Naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough puts it among the top ten places to see nature in the world along with Antarctica and the Galapagos. It has disabled access, boardwalks, hides and good visitor facilities including cafe, shop and education galleries. It covers 430 acres from Cley to Salthouse marshes. The visitor centre is on the Coast Road at Cley next the Sea NR25 7SA.

Blakeney national nature reserve, run by the National Trust, is a 4 mile spit of shingle and sand dunes from Cley beach to Blakeney Point. The reserve also includes salt marshes, tidal mudflats and reclaimed farmland. The remote shingle spit is a breeding ground for common tern, arctic tern, sandwich tern and little tern. Blakeney Freshes can be viewed by walking the Coastal path from Blakeney to Cley.

Morston quay has a National Trust visitor centre where bird sightings are recorded daily. It is on the Coastal path between Blakeney and Stiffkey. Visitors can book a boat trip to Blakeney Point from this little harbour. The visitor centre is on Quay Lane, Morston NR25 7BH.

Holkham national nature reserve, between Burnham Overy Staithe and Blakeney, is Britain’s largest national nature reserve covering almost 10,000 acres and nine miles of coast. It has a maze of creeks, saltmarshes, dunes, pine woods and pasture providing a mix of habitat.The core of the reserve is around Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea with a range of visitor facilities. It offers guided trips of the reserve. The centre is The Lookout at Lady Anne's Drive, Holkham, near Wells-next-the-Sea NR23 1RG.

Avocet (Credit: Ben Andrew, RSPB)

Titchwell Marsh nature reserve, between Titchwell and Thornham, is run by the RSPB. It celebrates 50 years of conservation in 2023. Reedbeds, saltmarsh and freshwater lagoons attract avocets, bearded tit, bittern and marsh harrier. A wide sandy beach gives extensive views across The Wash. It has boardwalks and a shop/visitor centre. Book a tour here and they almost guarantee seeing 50 bird species on your trip at Main Road, Titchwell, King's Lynn PE31 8BB.

Holme Dunes national nature reserve covers 500 acres and is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Three birdwatching hides overlook grazing marsh and pools, with disabled access to the first and information boards. It also has a visitor centre with displays and refreshments. It is on Broadwater Road, Hunstanton PE36 6LQ.

Snettisham nature reserve, also run by the RSPB, has panoramic views across saline lagoons, salt marsh and a vast expanse of mudflats making up The Wash. It is famed for the spectacular displays of knot which rise in clouds of tens of thousands of birds as the incoming tide covers their feeding ground and pushes them into the sky. The RSPB calls this the 'whirling wader spectacle'. It is a special event happening only on the highest tides. Check with the RSPB for their Snettisham Spectaculars dates and times guide. The reserve is at Beach Road, Snettisham, King's Lynn PE31 7RA.

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