Suffolk's best birdwatching

More than 400 species of bird have been recorded in Suffolk and looking out for them is a rewarding and fascinating pastime. <br/><br/>John Grant has some advice for the birdwatching beginner

More than 400 species of bird have been recorded in Suffolk and looking out for them is a rewarding and fascinating pastime. John Grant has some advice for the birdwatching beginner

FOR each of its 30 years, the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch has enjoyed massive support from Suffolk families. And it’s guaranteed that those Suffolk families have, in turn, enjoyed taking part in the largest bird survey of its kind in the world, connecting with nature and getting a brief birding buzz with adult and child sharing a few priceless moments immersed in togetherness.But what happens when the Garden Birdwatch binoculars are put away? Does that brief encounter with our feathered friends have to be just an annual one-off? Of course not. And above all, certainly not in beautiful, bird-rich Suffolk. Beyond the garden fence there is a county that is right up there with Britain’s birding best – and the birding beginner could not wish for a better place in which to explore, learn and enjoy.In ornithological terms, Suffolk can justifiably boast about its magical combination of geographic position, a delightful diversity of habitats and an ever-expanding array of expertly-managed nature reserves.Being adjacent to the North Sea means Suffolk is ideally placed to receive migrants that have just crossed, or are about to cross, the 100-or-so miles of watery expanse that separates us from the Continent. The mosaic of habitats, such as reedbed, heath, grazing marsh, coniferous and deciduous woodland, river estuary, the sea itself and, yes, even farmland, is another key to the county’s astounding species diversity. Mix all those factors together and you have enthralling, year-round birding that simply never fails to fascinate.About 400 species have been recorded in Suffolk, from the familiar stars of the Big Garden Birdwatch, to the nationally rare breeders that the county is so rightly noted for, such as bittern, marsh harrier and avocet, and to the exotic, long-distance globetrotting vagrants that set the twitchers’ pulses racing.That in itself might seem something of a barrier for the beginner – there’s just so much to learn beyond the garden fence. Don’t be daunted. With Suffolk’s place among Britain’s top birding counties safely established, an intricate support network has evolved to help even the least experienced among us set out on the path to birding fulfilment.Much of this support, not surprisingly but certainly inspiringly, emanates from the RSPB. The charity has built up a glorious chain of reserves across the county, the flagship of which is internationally-acclaimed Minsmere, where all levels of birdwatcher are welcomed equally and where help is always at hand.In recent years the reserve’s staff have been augmented by an eager and enthusiastic band of volunteers who delight in taking the beginner under their wing, be it on an impressive array of guided walks or simply by way of gentle assistance offered informally in the birdwatching hides.There simply could not be a better introduction to the wonders of birding than teaming up with the guides – there’s even a walk entitled Birdwatching for Beginners which covers everything from choosing and using binoculars to starting out on the never-ending road of learning that can lead to a lifetime of pleasure.Some of the walks offer a gentle, informative introduction to the many and varied habitats within the reserve’s boundaries – for example, some of Britain’s finest reedbeds are the home of the elusive bittern and the majestic, marauding marsh harrier, while the Scrape’s shallow saline lagoons positively pulsate with life, including the iconic avocet, the emblem of the RSPB no less.Other walks concentrate on the songbirds, such as an audible array of warblers and the not-to-be-missed operatic nightingales. Birdsong is an uplifting, joyful backdrop to a spring visit to Minsmere and if the beginner is worried about sorting out the species responsible for this spectacular soundscape, fear not – there’s usually a helpful volunteer or member of staff around the next bush!From dawn chorus specials to dusk vigils on the heathland to watch for and listen to the mysterious and beguiling nightjar, the guided walks come thick and fast – there really is something for everyone. Groups are generally small – say a dozen or so – but there is even a “hire-a-guide” scheme in which visitors have a guide to themselves for that extra one-to-one, or one-to-a-family attention.Magical Minsmere may be the highest-profile nature reserve in Suffolk, if not in Britain, but beyond its bounds the county is graced by numerous other birding sites. The RSPB reserves at Havergate Island, North Warren, between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness, and Lakenheath Fen are probably the charity’s best-known. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust has a portfolio of outstanding reserves too, as has Natural England and the National Trust. Indeed, so rich is the diversity and number of wonderful birding sites it is sometimes difficult to choose where to go. The hardened, experienced birder will have his or her favourites and will use birding instinct to make an informed choice, based on such factors as the time of year and the weather conditions. But what of the beginner? Where to go, what little local “patch” to explore and what may be seen?This is one area in which the support network can come in very handy indeed. Individual birders, pretty much without exception, are only too keen to impart their knowledge to help an up-and-coming beginner, but, in addition, there is a fantastic network of organisations.The RSPB has four highly-acclaimed local groups – in Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich, Woodbridge and Lowestoft – whose members hold regular indoor meetings and field events. The entire ethos of the RSPB is a welcoming one – don’t forget its motto is “For Birds, For People, For Ever.” Note the phrase “for people” – the local groups represent a wonderful opportunity for socialising and learning about birds at the same time.Beyond the RSPB perhaps the best way of joining the “Suffolk Birding Corps” is to become a member of the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group. It promotes and organises surveys and projects relating to Suffolk’s birds and while it might sound a little more “heavyweight” don’t be put off. This, too, is a warmly welcoming, friendly and inclusive organisation. Its regular exciting field meetings are led by some of Suffolk’s most experienced birders who pride themselves as much on their communication skills as their birding talents, and the range of indoor meetings is equally impressive.So if the spark of interest has been kindled by events such as the Big Garden Birdwatch, you certainly don’t have to wait until the next one. There’s no time like the present – make contact with someone within the network, take their advice and get out there with your binoculars. There is a world of winged wonder waiting to be explored and enjoyed beyond the garden fence.

did you know?

The world record avian non-stop flight was achieved by a satellite-tracked bar-tailed godwit. It flew from North Island, New Zealand, to the northern end of China's Yellow Sea – a distance of 10,200km. It took nine days.

Arctic terns are famed for their annual virtually pole-to-pole migrations. One ringed as a chick on the Farne Islands, Northumberland, in June 1982 was found in Melbourne, Australia, 22,000km away by sea, about four months later.A ringed Manx shearwater was proved to be more than 50 years old and is thought to have covered more than five million miles in annual migratory flights alone. It was ringed in Wales – the species spends each winter off South America.

The common swift is one species that lives a virtually perpetual aerial life, landing only to nest and even then not touching the ground. It sleeps on the wing by "switching off" half its brain at a time.

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