Countless birds, amphibians, insects and mammals find a home at Titchwell. Whatever the season, a visit will result in a memorable encounter says Carrie Carey
A year of nature on the coast
Freshwater lagoons, woodland trails and a stunning beach make Titchwell Marsh one of the RSPB’s most popular reserves. A short walk from the entrance through bird filled woodlands and you’re out onto the wide expanse of salt marsh and reedbeds, which offer year-round delights.
April and May
Full of bird song with resident birds such as blackbirds and robins raising their first brood of the year. Visiting warblers and flycatchers have returned from their winter sojourn and add their beautiful melodies to the dawn chorus. Morning song starts early. Usually robins are the first to start singing even before the sun comes up and these are closely followed by blackbirds, dunnocks and the high pitched trill of the wren. The still morning air of a calm spring day carries complex and lyrical bird songs far across the reserve so that they have the maximum impact on rival males. However, the musical entertainment doesn’t end at dawn – a visitor to the Meadow Trail will hear the refrain of blackcaps, willow warblers and chiff chaffs throughout the day. Late April heralds the return of cuckoos to the reserve, which like other migrants have been overwintering in Africa. Cuckoos are extremely quick on the wing which makes spotting them a challenge but occasionally one or two will oblige by posing on a low tree bough as they deliver their familiar call.
April is a great month to be on the reserve with the arrival of so many summer migrants. One of the last visitors to arrive is the Eurasian eel which has undertaken a remarkable journey to reach Titchwell’s fresh water habitats. Starting life in the Atlantic Ocean, millions of juvenile eels are brought to Britain’s shores by the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift. They gather in estuaries and inlets and begin to travel inland where they will spend most of their lives in dykes, lakes and reedbeds. Although they prefer to move around at night, it is possible to spot eels in the Fresh Marsh or Reedbeds during the day. Unfortunately the stalwart eels that reach Titchwell are a favourite food source for bitterns which like to feed the small elvers to their own young!
Visitors can also witness the transformation of frog and toad spawn into tadpoles, early butterflies such as orange tips begin to frequent the Wildlife Garden and along the the East Trail, spring flowers come into bloom. Soon the meadow strip will be an explosion of yellows as cowslips and primroses appear dotted amongst the gorse.
June, July and August
The woodlands, hedgerows and Wildlife Garden are full of wild flowers and colourful blooms. Amongst these are the marsh orchids; more common and widespread than you might imagine, these tiny plants adapt well to the boggy conditions of Titchwell’s wetland habitats. Nestled between fresh water reedbeds and pools, a small meadow erupts every summer with hundreds of diminutive southern marsh orchids and keen eyed visitors might spot a random leopard orchid sitting among them. These beautiful flowers are short lived and all but a few will have disappeared by the end of July.
However by now, our wildflowers are at their peak and this is evidenced by a plethora of butterflies, bees and other invertebrates which rely on the reserve’s fauna for food, shade and habitat. It is also a great month to take a closer look at some of our most spectacular insects – damselflies and dragonflies. You can find these engaging creatures almost anywhere near a water source or wetland area and the aptly named Dragonfly pool along the Meadow Trail is an ideal place to start. Damp or wet wings are no good for flight so you are unlikely to see them on a drizzly day. Choose a bright, dry and windless morning, settle down on a bench with a good pair of binoculars and wait. Unlike birds which are early risers, dragonflies and damselflies don’t appear until mid-morning, giving late comers to the reserve plenty of opportunity to catch sight of a large red damselfly or a four spotted chaser dragonfly.
During summer months, the beach at Titchwell beckons visitors of all kinds. Seabirds are busy feeding their hungry young before heading out to sea for the autumn and winter and the occasional curious seal will pop its head up to see what’s about.
Small rockpools form amongst hollows in the fossilised remains of a forest that once linked the north Norfolk coast with mainland Europe. Hidden here are the gems of the intertidal zone, limpets which survive by trapping water under their shells, minute barnacles adhering themselves to larger crustaceans and tiny ghost crabs lurking beneath the slippery seaweed. Choose a day with a low spring tide when most of the intertidal zone is exposed and follow the receding tide down the beach. Here amongst the sand pools and rock pools you will discover wildlife hotspots each with its own marine community. If you arrive a couple of hours before high tide you should see flocks of wading birds such as knot, or dunlin congregating together as they find a suitable roosting spot. Sanderlings can be spotted running to and fro along the beach with the incoming tide, their clockwork-like actions very noticeable among the more sedate godwits and redshanks.
On the long stretch of sand, thousands of razor shells lie scattered on the strandline; so prolific are their numbers that it is impossible to walk along the beach without the sound of shells crunching beneath feet. Overhead, herring gulls and black headed gulls soar along the shoreline and out to sea looking for their next meal. They occasionally swoop onto the beach and snatch an ambivalent crab as it sidles over the concourse of shells.
As August melts into September, Titchwell undergoes another era of change. In the Wildlife Garden the last of the flowers are clinging on; their bright colours slowly ebbing away. In turn, trees are turning their leaves from various hues of green to golds, bronzes and rich reds. The hedgerows that guard the reserve fill with blackberries and brambles which will provide food for hungry birds over the autumn months. Almost hidden by falling leaves, sprouting fungi begin to push their way into the subdued daylight. They love the cool, damp days of September and October and are best seen in the morning when the ground is still wet with dew. Look out for candlesnuff and elder whitewash along the path from the car park.
Across the reserve, habitats are alive with birds migrating in from colder climes. As the swallows, swifts and turtle doves depart, a bounty of avian visitors arrive from the sub Arctic and northern Europe. Titchwell benefits from cold easterly winds bringing rain with them. This forces migrating birds to land in the early hours of the morning to seek food and shelter. A few dry days will encourage the birds to remain on the reserve and Titchwell’s wetland areas soon becoming a haven for wintering waders, wildfowl and geese. Sea watching can be rewarding at this time of year but it’s best to wrap up warmly if you want to catch a sight of terns and shearwaters. This is also a good time to look out for gannets gliding low over the water in small groups before circling up high and plunging into the sea to feed.
October and November
By mid-month, most of our summer visitors will have left but there is always the chance of an interesting late departure such as an osprey or dotterel. Other species which have been breeding much further north will be continuing their journeys south, using Titchwell like a motorway service station to top up their energy reserves. Now is the time to be on the watch for a rare bird – or rather a lost bird. It isn’t uncommon for one or more birds to end up at Titchwell when they should have been overwintering in Africa, Asia or even South America. The likelihood is that they have been blown off course by strong autumn winds or there has been a mishap with their internal compass. Sometimes individuals are thousands of miles off course and Titchwell is a welcome reprieve for exhausted and hungry birds. These sightings are a great draw for enthusiastic birders but even for the novice, October is a good time of year for watching wildlife. Many garden birds congregate together to find food and our feeders outside the Visitor Centre are always full of tits, finches and brambling. Further out on the reserve a lone barn owl flies low across the fields in search of his final meal of the day. November follows in a similar vein and by the close of autumn, the morning skies echo with the distant yap of greylags and the melodic wink-wink of pink-footed geese, a sign that winter has arrived.
December and January
Although it is tempting to remain indoors during these colder months, December and January also hold a treasure of wildlife discoveries on the reserve. Even elusive animals such as Chinese water deer and bittern need to emerge from their hiding places and search for food. Wintering thrushes such as fieldfares and the occasional flock of redwings take advantage of the hawthorn berries that adorn the car park and in the fields next to the reserve, finches and sparrows gather in large groups to feed on redundant weed seeds. Many animals elect to gather together in groups at this time of year, not only to find food but also to avoid hungry predators! Reduced daylight hours create more opportunities to watch wildlife as many species are active all day long in the winter and dusk is the ideal time to watch marsh and hen harriers wheeling and turning above the reedbed before dropping in to roost for the night.
February and March
As the last days of winter are pushed away, it might be possible to see advanced parties of summer visitors arrive on the reserve providing a taste of what to expect in late April and May. Little ringed plovers and wheatears are always a joy to see and their arrival seems to herald the departure of the wintering wildfowl, waders and geese. On a warm day, it is possible to spot early peacock and comma butterflies around the Meadow Trail. Most resident birds are still putting breeding off in favour of warmer weather but long tailed tits, which build a very intricate and labour intensive nest, need to get off to a prompt start. Similarly, robins are keen to get going and around the woodland glade, males can be heard singing even more vociferously in order to attract a mate and defend their territory.
Carrie Carey is Visitor Experience Manager RSPB NW Norfolk Reserves