Who needs Costa Rica when you've got the Norfolk Broads?

Mike Unwin
·7-min read
A wading crane - Getty
A wading crane - Getty

We stand on a raised bank on Hickling Broad, clapping hands and stamping feet against the December chill. A blackbird sounds its excitable pre-bedtime “chink, chink” alarm. After a day of mist and drizzle, the winter light is fast draining into dusk. Time to be heading home, you might think. But the day’s defining performance is still to come.

First, a dark shape appears, drifting low over the marsh. Our binoculars reveal the signature shallow-V flight profile of a marsh harrier, returning to its communal roost. No sooner have we picked out three more, straining the limits of our vision, than a clarion bugling diverts our gaze to a line of larger birds emerging from the south. Deep wingbeats and outstretched necks identify these as cranes, Hickling’s speciality. Their high, rolling calls bring a brief blast of northern taiga before they, too, drop down into the reeds.

Even now, the show isn’t over. With the landscape reduced to silhouette, a murmur rises in the north, quickly swelling in volume, like a distant advancing mob. “Pink-feet,” says Mike. “Look up.”

And here they come: a straggling army of pink-footed geese materialising in waves against the last of the light. The thin etch-a-sketch skeins thicken, converging overhead in a milling canopy of birds thousands-strong, their individual voices lost in one overwhelming clamour. We stare up in awe as they pass, then they’re gone. With the sky silent, but our ears still ringing, we turn back towards the car park.

A flock of pink-footed geese - Getty
A flock of pink-footed geese - Getty

My visit to Hickling Broad has come courtesy of wildlife tour company Naturetrek, which last summer – its global wings clipped by the pandemic – launched a new UK day trip programme. The idea is simple: up to five guests, travelling under their own steam, meet up with an expert guide for a socially distanced wildlife day out. Some trips cater to general interest, while others are more specialised. Our trip targeted the Norfolk Broads during a season when huge numbers of wintering wildfowl offer one of Britain’s finest avian spectacles.

We started at Buckenham Marshes reserve, south of Hickling. Parking behind the old station house at this quiet stop on the Norwich-Great Yarmouth line, I found our guide, Mike Crewe, waiting. A local resident, and an authority not only on birds but also on botany, history and all things Norfolk, Mike would generally be escorting clients around the likes of Brazil or Zambia right now. This year, however, he’s been getting just as much joy from showing off his own backyard. “I love it here,” he announced. “You can really get out and amongst it.”

Greylag geese - Getty
Greylag geese - Getty

The rest of our party arrived and we set out across the marsh. Human sound seemed swallowed in the mist, leaving just the birds – the soft piping of teal, the shriller whistles of wigeon and the cackle of geese overhead. “The greylag sounds like your farmyard goose,” Mike pointed out, explaining how knowing this common resident makes it easier to identify the calls of winter visitors. With greylag nailed, we could distinguish the higher-pitched “wink, wink” of pink-footed geese, from Iceland, and the more metallic tones of white-fronted geese, rarer visitors from Greenland.

The mist rose, unveiling a landscape that was flat, sodden and packed with birds. At first, we focused on the ducks that thronged the pools and ditches. Mike pointed out their differing feeding strategies: shovelers surface-trawling; wigeon grazing, heads bobbing. “Teal somehow inflate both ends at the same time,” he said, as we watched two dapper little drakes in their courtship routine. “I’ve tried to do the same, but it doesn’t impress the wife.”

A lapwing - Getty
A lapwing - Getty

There was plenty more. A peregrine falcon put up hundreds of birds in airborne panic: a histrionic mob of lapwings; a dashing cohort of golden plovers; a gang of teal tearing through the air like sprint cyclists rounding a bend. Unperturbed, herons stalked the ditches and reed buntings flitted between trackside bushes. A couple of hares lolloped past the grazing geese, while Chinese water deer – a stocky little Asian escapee, now established in East Anglia – munched the sodden sward like capybaras in the Pantanal.

Chinese water deer - Getty
Chinese water deer - Getty

By lunchtime, we had moved to nearby Strumpshaw Fen. Cue more ducks, marsh harriers, squealing water rails and the “ping” calls of elusive bearded tits – their soft-toy incarnations on sale at RSPB reception. And after socially distanced sandwiches at the cars, we headed to Hickling for those cranes and pink-feet. It was 5pm, with the stars out by the time we said our goodbyes. The day’s bird total stood at an impressive 74 species.

For me, however, there was more to come. The next day, Naturetrek had another Norfolk day trip scheduled – this one to the north coast – so I had booked in at the nearby Blakeney Hotel to make a weekend of it. Early the next morning, geese were already overflying the quayside and curlews calling from the marsh as I pulled away from this picturesque retreat. Check: boots, binoculars, hand sanitiser… The rosy dawn promised a clear day ahead.

Holkham - Chris Taylor
Holkham - Chris Taylor

The day’s rendezvous was the car park of Holkham Estate, 15 minutes east of Blakeney along the coast. Here I met the new guests and hooked up with Mike – again. “This is our most vibrant living landscape in Norfolk,” he explained, as we zipped up jackets. A robin hopped around his telescope tripod, as if in deference to our leader.

From the car park, we walked down to the beach through a marshland even more bird-congested than yesterday’s. Wigeon and teal set the scene again, their pinks, chestnuts and creams vibrant indeed against the dripping greenery. Leggier black-tailed godwits and redshank probed among the tussocks, while a great egret winged overhead and a red kite drifted along the horizon, trailing a retinue of protesting rooks.

A great egret - Getty
A great egret - Getty

The beach brought a new cast. Brent geese, the most marine of their tribe, nibbled over the saltings, while a flock of snow buntings, rare visitors from the north, fluttered among the dunes, their white wings like windblown scraps of the Arctic. Out on the waves, the low winter light illuminated sea ducks riding the surf – eider, red-breasted merganser, common scoter – while a great northern diver sat preening a little further out. The more we scanned, the more our list lengthened: red-necked grebe, Mediterranean gull, sanderlings…

Red-necked grebe - Getty
Red-necked grebe - Getty

The afternoon brought rain. We hunkered down with the fallow deer under the sheltering oaks of Holkham Estate and peered out at the stately pile, seat of the Earl of Leicester. There was no rest for the birds, however. Mike explained how winter brought together mixed-species feeding flocks, and we watched as a wave of diminutive tits – blue, great, coal and long-tailed – worked the branches above us, goldcrests and treecreepers tagging along.

The day ended once again with a sky full of pink-footed geese – about 25,000, reckoned Mike, but this time further away, like a distant plague of winter locusts. Then, after a brief sign-off from a passing barn owl, I was back in the car and heading home. Soon Norfolk’s dark lanes had deposited me on to the M11, southbound, my wipers working overtime. But my head was still full of honking – and I reflected how, when you really “get out and amongst it”, your home horizons can be as wild as any.

Feeding pink foots - Getty
Feeding pink foots - Getty

How to do it

Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk) offers a variety of small-group, year-round, expertly guided wildlife day trips across the UK, from £50pp (excluding parking and reserve entry fees). All trips are fully Covid-secure and participants must provide their own food and transport. A day typically lasts from 9am to 5pm. Day trips will resume when the national lockdown lifts, restrictions allowing. Mike stayed at the Blakeney Hotel on the north Norfolk coast. Double rooms from £244.