For many readers, my patch requires very little by way of introduction: a Norfolk birdwatching trip isn’t complete without a visit. Titchwell is not only my patch, but my place of work since I am the reserve warden. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean I see every bird on the reserve – and that is ok by me.
RSPB Titchwell Marsh, on the north Norfolk coast, covers 350 ha, a small part of the 7,800 ha of the North Norfolk Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Area (SPA) that it lies within. The reserve’s location, and its cocktail of habitats – woodland, reedbed, freshwater marsh, saltmarsh and a sandy beach – means that it is incredibly rich in birdlife throughout the year. There are not many places in the UK where you can record 100 bird species in a day at a single site in every month of the year.
During the winter, the woodlands support small flocks of Siskins Spinus spinus and Lesser Redpolls Acanthis cabaret, with Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla tucked in among the Chaffinches F. coelebs, while on the meadow trail there is a good chance of encountering a roosting Woodcock Scolopax rusticola. In spring and summer this area is alive with singing Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla and Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita, with the odd Willow Warbler P. trochilus as it passes through. The purr of the Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur can still be heard as this species clings on. In the autumn, Yellow-browed Warblers P. inornatus can frequently be heard, although there is a local Coal Tit Periparus ater that does a good imitation! With previous records of Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus and Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva, I often walk these trails in the hope of finding one myself.
Leaving the woodland behind, a blast of Cetti’s Warbler Cettia cetti song can be heard throughout the year from the reedbeds, while the resident Marsh Harriers Circus aeruginosus patrol the ditches in search of a meal. Watching the sun rise during the winter months reveals an almost constant stream of Marsh Harriers departing from their roost; last winter, a record 90 were counted. If I’m lucky, a lone Hen Harrier C. cyaneus sneaks out too.
During the spring I can look up to watch male Marsh Harriers sky-dancing above me to attract a female (or two). I’m surrounded by a background chorus of Reed Acrocephalus scirpaceus and Sedge Warblers A. schoenobaenus and the ‘ping-ping’ of Bearded Tits Panurus biarmicus. Sometimes a Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia can be heard reeling. Sadly, the chances of hearing a Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris have somewhat diminished recently; they haven’t bred on site for over five years. However, over 100 Little Egrets Egretta garzetta roost on site during the autumn, while a Purple Heron Ardea purpurea remained on the reserve for four weeks in 2019. A Black Tern Chlidonias niger or two, flickering across the reedbed pools in May, adds to the growing continental feel.
Onwards to the freshwater marsh. During the winter, water levels have been raised to cover the islands. This management technique mimics winter flooding, suppressing vegetation growth to ensure that the islands are suitable for breeding birds in spring and reducing the reliance on herbicide. In winter, the freshmarsh is dominated by Eurasian Teals Anas crecca, with small flocks of Wigeons Mareca penelope, Lapwings Vanellus vanellus and European Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria. If water levels are really high, the Golden Plovers will be replaced by Pintails Anas acuta, Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula and Common Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula. Water Pipits Anthus spinoletta wander around the edge of the cut vegetation. As the year progresses, water levels are slowly drawn down, revealing islands for the 600 pairs of Black-headed Gulls Chroicocephalus ridibundus and up to 57 pairs of Mediterranean Gulls Ichthyaetus melanocephalus to nest on. Further lowering reveals bare areas for the later-nesting Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta, Common Terns Sterna hirundo and Little Ringed Plovers Charadrius dubius. From June to October, water levels are altered frequently, drying and rewetting to benefit the many passage waders that pass through. Evening visits are my favourite: a sense of calm drifts over the place once the visitors have departed and the waders shine in the evening sun. Wader highlights in the past few years have included three firsts for the reserve: Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris in June 2016, Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes in July 2018 and Semipalmated Sandpiper C. pusilla in July 2019.
Continuing northwards, the Volunteer Marsh is always worth a scan; this area is reverting back to saltmarsh after a managed realignment was completed to safeguard the freshwater habitats from rising sea levels and from storm surges. Flocks of Linnets Linaria cannabina feed on the seeds, and in the winter there is still a chance of Twite L. flavirostris, although this species is becoming increasingly rare. The creek systems can reveal overwintering Spotted Redshanks Tringa erythropus and Greenshanks T. nebularia, while during the breeding season Common Redshank T. totanus chicks can sometimes be seen.
Tidal marsh is next, an area that has undergone significant changes over the past two years, reflecting the dynamic Norfolk coastline. Originally formed in the 1990s through natural processes, it remained tidal until 2018 when the beach changed significantly, preventing water from escaping and creating a saline lagoon. After high tides in October 2019, a new channel was created, and the area is tidal once more. At high tide a collection of roosting waders use this area and Avocets breed here in the summer.
At high tide during the winter months, the sea is often a highlight of a walk around the reserve, and a careful scan reveals Long-tailed Ducks Clangula hyemalis and Red-throated Divers Gavia stellata, perhaps with the odd Great Northern Diver G. immer, Slavonian Podiceps auritus and Red-necked Grebe P. grisegena, although the rafts of Common Scoters Melanitta nigra are diminishing. A walk along the beach may reveal Lapland Calcarius lapponicus or Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis while a Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima may be found crouching at the base of the tank blocks. During the summer, Ringed Plovers Charadrius hiaticula hang in there as a breeding species. Their nests are increasingly washed out by high tides; human disturbance is a potential problem too, although a beach cordon reduces this to a degree.
No matter what time of year, there is always something to watch. Although Titchwell provides an opportunity to record 200 species in a year at a single site, having the biggest list isn’t what motivates me. For me, patching is about enjoying and appreciating the birdlife as it changes through the seasons and developing a deeper understanding of a place.