In winter, vast mud flats and undisturbed salt marshes can seem lonely, inhospitable places, even though they teem with countless wildlife.
Even during the heat of summer, they manage to keep their distance and distance, and this inaccessibility fortunately provides a sanctuary for breeding waders and wildfowl.
The beaches of the northern Norfolk coast are a different story in the summer, when vacationers understandably enjoy the wide, flat sands and even wider blue skies.
The competition is always high for the best spot, and this can lead to conflict with beach-nesting birds such as ringed plover and tiny terns. Often their only chance of success is to find themselves in one of the specially roped areas provided by the conservationists, although unfortunately this still does not guarantee safety from disturbances.
For naturalists, and all lovers of secluded walks, in winter, when the beaches are free of crowds, they really come alive. A wide open space somehow feels more spacious. At low tide this is evidenced by the walk of a mile or so to the sea and the glorious horizon that never closes.
Winter walks along our sandy coastline guarantee many wonderful wildlife sightings. In early winter, large groups of pregnant gray seals relocate themselves to secluded stretches of the beach to “pup”.
Their solitary offspring are born furry white – not a good camouflage on sand and gravel, but an adaptation left over from the Ice Age when they were born on the snow! They are fed for just over three weeks, consuming three liters of fat-rich milk each day, before they are left completely to fend for themselves.
Later in the winter, the adults will congregate to molt, and this is often at a site regularly used for this activity. Their presence is accompanied by a strong fishy odor which is the distinct scent of a colony of deciduous gray seals.
They draw flocks of stonecrops and sandpipers, which hunt for flies and sand hoppers around their lounging bodies. The little sanderlings’ running is somewhat comical, especially when they are chased by the foamy folds of the waves.
Packs of them will race on dog-walkers until they get bored with the chase and lift themselves into the air, allowing the sea breeze to carry them over the heads of the pursuers and back to where they started.
Behind the soft flat beaches roll golden sand dunes.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust Holme Dunes is a wonderful nature reserve that can be visited at any time of the year and has one of the UK’s most important colonies of the rare naterjack frog. In winter, the dunes facing the sea are good places to look for shore larks and flocks of small, stocky snow bunting. Holme Dunes is an important reserve, as many of Norfolk’s dune systems now lie under large conifer plantations or link golf courses.
Heading east along the coast, the beaches narrow to shingle banks. Freshwater puddles and scrapes behind lie in the Klee and Salthouse swamps of the NWT.
In recent years, winter storms have breached the shingles, flooding the marshes with seawater. Despite this, Cley remains one of the best birdwatching sites in the country, and rare vagrant birds are still recorded in the reserve. In winter, after a good breeding year, the reeds are full of bearded tits. The mature male is a striking bird, with a light blue head and a drooping Victorian gent’s mustache.
In freezing and snowy weather, the bittern, usually hiding in the reeds, can be very obliging as it stalks along the edges of the frozen dike.
Our milder winters now find our spoonbill who spends the whole year here too. They have recolonized North Norfolk, which is one of their few breeding grounds in the UK. The return of this odd-looking, spoon-beaked bird has been possible due to habitat improvements and legal protections, ensuring that it no longer ends up in glass display cases.
Our district’s coast, and its array of wildlife, is attractive all year round, but when cricket logs have been collected on the beach, windswept folds and towels, for me, the northern Norfolk coast really comes alive. A long winter walk through this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty can be an exhilarating experience.
Beaches and dunes to visit this winter
The Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley marshes and Salthouse Nature Reserve are popular with bird watchers. You can find reed beds, salt marshes, and a pebble beach, as well as a visitor center with a gift shop and refreshments.
Winterton Dunes National Nature Reserve in England is excellent for birds, butterflies and a variety of dune plants. Stagnation pools are home to natterjack frogs in the summer.
Holkham National Nature Reserve is Norfolk’s most unique, diverse and dramatic sand dune and beach system. The wide beach is a great place to spot birds such as shore larks and snow buntings.
For full details of directions, parking and times to visit, check the NWT, Natural England and Holkham Nature Reserve websites.