Broads National Park: Where Wildlife Thrives

20 December 2021

Whilst cruising the Broads National Park it’s tempting to focus on your next destination. But don’t miss the opportunity to slow down and take in your surroundings on the way. Look a little closer you’ll see the Broads are a hive of activity for the wildlife that make their homes there.

The waterways of Norfolk are an excellent place to observe nature in its element. Broads National Park boasts almost 100 species, some of which are exclusive to the area.

So grab your camera and be on the lookout!

Whether looking to the skies, or the Broads ahead of you there are various species to keep a “bird’s-eye” out for.

Common Crane

With a wing-span averaging 2m and weighing up to 6kg, the Common Crane is one of the largest birds in Europe. They are mostly grey, with a white streak on the face and a red patch on the crown when fully grown. It may look like these cranes have a black tail. In fact, this “tail” is comprised of their long wing plumes that drape down whilst standing.

A small breeding population was noted in the Broads in 1979, and they have increased in number ever since.

Common Cranes are usually migratory birds, but in Norfolk, you can spot them all year round. Winter visitors to Broads National Park should visit Stubb Mill viewpoint in Hickling. You might be lucky enough to spot them coming in to roost at sunset. If you’re heading to the southern Broads be sure to stop off in Somerleyton for a glimpse of these birds.

Marsh Harrier

These are the largest of three Harrier species seen in Norfolk. Males are rusty coloured, with grey wings and black tips. Female colouring is less warm. They are a darker shade of brown but with golden patches on the head and shoulders.

The population of these birds of prey has varied over the years. The Broads once homed so many in the 19th century that we referred to them as “Norfolk Hawks”. Yet only a few decades later we considered them extinct in the UK. Since 1982 numbers have recovered remarkably. A quarter of the 400 UK breeding pairs are now found nesting here in Broads National Park.

Reed beds and wet marshes are traditional habitats for these raptors. Nowadays you can now spot them almost anywhere across the Broads.

Look overhead during spring breeding season for dazzling courtship displays by the males.


This one is for the eagle-eyed! The conservation status of Bitterns is of “least concern” globally. In spite of this, they are one of the rarest breeding birds in the UK.

Bitterns are part of the Heron family, but much smaller at roughly 70-80cm long. They have powerful green/yellow bills and well camouflaged streaky brown feathers. Bitterns live in reedbeds, and if disturbed they freeze and try to blend in by sticking their bill up in the air.

Despite living in the Broads all year round you’re more likely to hear a Bittern than see one. The “booming” call of a male Bittern sounds very much like blowing air over a glass bottle and can be heard up to 2km away. The boom is usually heard between March and June when the males try to attract a mate. Much like human fingerprints, each boom is different.

Bitterns usually prefer to move on foot through the reeds where they’re camouflaged. But if you visit Broads National Park in the summer you might be lucky and see them foraging to feed their young. Try looking out for them in Hickling Broad or Cley Marshes.

Grey Heron

Unlike its smaller cousin the Bittern, Grey Herons are very common. The Norfolk name for a Heron is Harnser, and you’ll find many pubs by that name along the Broads.

Herons are large birds, with long legs and a wingspan up to 6 feet. Their bodies are grey, with darker feathers on top and black on the wings. Adults also have a black nape plume that starts above the eye. The yellow/grey beak of a Heron is large and pointed like a dagger.

You can see Herons all year round in Broads National Park. You may notice them standing close to the water waiting for fish to swim by. If you spot them overhead you’ll see that they tuck their heads in, flying with a slow wing beat.

From February to April you may glimpse groups of Herons – known as a siege – nesting in trees. These heronries can have up to 10 nests per tree.


This common resident of Broads National park is easy to spot with their black bodies and white beaks. They also have a characteristic white ‘shield’ on their forehead. The saying “bald as a coot” refers to this patch.

Despite being a cousin to the Moorhen, the two birds have distinct differences.

Coots are on the water more often than Moorhen, leaving an untidy nest on the river during the spring. They can also be quite aggressive to other birds, especially when it comes to their food. Keep an eye out as they dive – they bring their catch to the surface.


In contrast to their black and white cousins, Moorhens have a red beak and yellow legs. They also have white patches on the body rather than the face.

Moorhens are one of the world’s most common birds, although not always known by the same name. Other names include Waterhen and Swamp Chicken.

Moorhen are out of the water more often than Coot. You may even see them climbing trees! The Moorhen is an omnivore, eating a variety of foods including berries and small fish.

They find flying quite hard work, so if disturbed they’re more likely to hide rather than flee.

If you visit Broads National Park in springtime, keep an eye out for the Moorhen’s mating ritual. The male will advance on the female with his beak in the water and then they will peck at each other’s feathers. You may then spot them together making a waterside nest out of sticks.


The iconic plumage of the Kingfisher makes them the photographer’s favourite. They are the only bird in the UK to sport electric blue and orange feathers and are very recognisable as a result. They have a rounded body, short tail and legs, and their rounded wings whir rapidly during flight. Their long bill is perfect for fishing.

You’re most likely to see Kingfisher while hunting, as they need to eat 60% of their body weight every day.

They tend to sit on a branch or riverbank overhanging the water and scout for fish. When Kingfisher detect prey they will dive with wings spread. A third eyelid protects their eyes from the water. After catching a fish the Kingfisher will take it back to its perch and beat the fish against it before they eat.

Kingfisher numbers have declined in Britain due to river pollution and habitat loss. Despite this, numbers in Broads National Park have increased in recent years. This may be due to milder winters, which allow more to survive the season.

Look for Kingfishers in spring & summer, especially at dawn when they are most active. Try and glimpse them flitting over the water in Strumpshaw fen. They have even been spotted nearer to our yard in Wroxham and Coltishall.

Bewick’s Swan

Bewick’s Swans travel all the way from the Russian tundra and arrive during the autumn. They look quite like the Whooper swan, the second swan species to winter in Broads National Park. The two are often seen on the water together.

Bewick’s swan is the smaller of the two, with a shorter neck and bill, which makes them look like a white goose. Bewick’s swans also have less yellow on the beak and a more rounded head shape. The pattern on their bill is unique to each swan.

Look out for these swans in autumn and winter, before they return to their breeding grounds in April. You might even spot them grazing in fields during the day whilst food is scarce.

Barn Owl

These are beautiful birds; white underneath and marked on the back and wings with buff and brown. They have rounded wings, and their characteristic white facial disk is heart-shaped.

Rather than the “hoot” we’ve come to associate with owls, this species clicks and screams.

Their numbers have declined across Britain since the early 30’s. This is due to both a loss of hunting grounds and a lack of barns/derelict farm buildings where they like to roost (as their name suggests!).

Barn Owl numbers are dependent on the vole population. This is because voles make up the majority of the owl’s diet. More food means more chicks are likely to survive that year.

Barn owls hunt over grassland, where they usually sit on an exposed perch to scope out potential prey. Sight and sound are of equal importance during the hunt. This is because the stiff feathers that make up the facial mask bounce sound back to the ears.

Barn owls are most active at dawn and dusk, but when they have young to feed they may even hunt during the day. There are many places you may see Barn Owls across Broads National park. Keep an eye out when visiting Hickling Broad or Strumpshaw Fen in particular.

Great Crested Grebe

Hunted to near extinction in Victorian times, the Crested Grebe is now one of the most common waterbirds in the UK.

They were hunted for their skin and impressive summer plumage. They have extravagant chestnut and black cheek-ruffs and two black crests on the head. Their necks are long with white throats, and they have a dark striped back. In winter Crested Grebes are black and white.

Keep your eyes peeled across Broads National Park for their elaborate courtship display. Each pair rises out of the water to shake their heads. Crested Grebes have a very long breeding season, which can span from February to October. Try and spot the striped young riding on their parent’s backs.


Everyone recognises these common but beloved residents of Broads National Park. They are infamous for their dimorphic plumage. This means that males and females look so different that they may appear to be different species. The females are brown and black to aid camouflage. In contrast, the drake has a bottle-green head and a yellow-green bill.

Listen out for their differences too. The females are loud and repetitive while the drakes have a quiet breathy quack.

At the end of summer, you may notice the plumage of the males is less impressive. This is because they moult their decorative flight feathers during this period. Their “eclipse plumage” may resemble the females, but their yellow bill never changes.

The Broads wouldn’t be the same without these friendly characters. So make some time to feed them some healthy snacks! Rice, seeds, sweet corn and chopped greens are particular favourites.


Mammals on the Norfolk Broads

The mammals of Broads National Park are more tricky to spot, but all the more rewarding if you do!

Water Vole

Water Voles are small mammals often mistaken for rats. They are generally dark brown in colour, with rounded heads and concealed ears much like a guinea pig. They are around 20cm long and furred all over, including the tail and feet (unlike rats!)

The UK population of Water Voles has been in steep decline over the last 60 years, with a 90-95% loss. An estimate in 2004 placed the population at 220,000. This is far removed from the 8 million estimated before 1960.

This decrease is due to many factors. These include habitat loss and excessive predation, especially from the non-native American Mink. This is a species that hunts the Water Vole so much that it has even caused local extinction in some places.

Even if they avoid becoming prey, Water Voles are unlikely to live very long. Average life expectancy in the wild is only 5 months.

Breeding season begins at the end of March and runs through until Autumn. Females give birth to 4-5 young and may have several litters in one breeding season.

Water Voles burrow into the river banks in areas with slow, still water. Whilst visiting Broads National Park, look for their burrow entrance above the waterline. This entrance is only a few centimetres wide, but inside there is a series of extensive tunnels. They also like to be near waterside vegetation. This provides both food and somewhere to hide from predators. They generally feed on plants, either in the water or on the banks.

Voles do not hibernate, but they do tend to hide in their burrows over winter. They survive on food stores and only emerge when conditions are milder.

Despite low population, the Broads remain a national stronghold for Water Voles. On a lucky day, you may see them on the River Ant, or the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserves at Ranworth and Hickling.


Although you’re most likely to spot this elusive mammal at dawn or dusk, they are active all year round. Otters are one for the “Broads Bucket List” if you happen to be in the right place at the right time.

There are several telling signs that an Otter may be in the area. Should you find their kite-shaped footprint, you’ll notice no webbing, and only 4 of their 5 toes show. Droppings – known as spraints -will be black and slimy when fresh, and grey when old. You may also notice slipways on muddy banks from where the otter has slid into the water on its belly.

Otters have a very distinctive look, with their broad dog-like muzzle. They have dense brown fur with a pale throat. Their tail is long and tapered, averaging 32-56cm in length. Average body length is 60-80cm, with females usually being shorter than the male.

Otters are generally nocturnal. You may still spot them hunting during the day, as they need to eat 20% of their body weight daily. Although Otters prefer fish, they are opportunistic hunters. They sometimes eat amphibians in the spring, and may even catch small water birds.

You can find Otters anywhere there is a good fish supply, ample foliage and a riverbank in which to burrow. Generally, otters are solitary, roaming over individual territories that span approximately 18km. Male and female boundaries may overlap, but males are territorial with each other.

Otters breed at any time of year, birthing in underground burrows known as “holts”. Within 10 weeks the young are swimming, and are dependent on their mother for over a year.

By the 1970s numbers had decreased, with some river systems sporting no Otters at all. In 1983 there was a successful re-introduction effort, after banning poisonous pesticides.

Today you can see them across most rivers in Broads National Park.  Otters are often recorded at Ranworth Broad and Barton Broad, so keep your eyes peeled if you’re in the area.

Chinese Water Deer

Despite being non-native to Britain, 10% of the global Chinese Water Deer population live in the UK. Although they are widespread in the Broads, in their native East Asia they are in decline.

Much as their name suggests, this species of deer are often found by the water, and are strong swimmers. Generally, they are solitary creatures, but females and adolescents may form temporary social groups.

Water Deer are very small, standing approximately 50cm tall at the shoulder. They are a rusty brown colour for most of the year, with longer legs at the back and a very short tail. They have large rounded ears but do not grow antlers. Instead, the males will grow two long tusks that protrude from the corners of the mouth. This gives them the nickname “Vampire Deer”. Females also have tusks but they are much smaller.

Bucks will use these extra-long canines to fight during rutting season. This begins in October. Pairs will then form and stay together for most of the doe’s gestation. Fawns are born between May and July, generally in litters of 1-3. For around 3 months the doe and young stay together, hiding amongst vegetation.

The best time to see Water Deer in Broads National Park is dawn or dusk. Try and spot them in Hickling Broad or Strumpshaw Fen.

Grey Seal

You won’t find seals swimming in the Broads, but we would be remiss not to include this coastal character.

Grey seals are the largest mammals to live in Britain. The biggest males can weigh up to 400kg, with females weighing between 100kg and 260kg. Bulls are generally dark grey, but females are a variety of colours, including grey, brown and fawn. Both sexes are often speckled. They have large heads with an elongated muzzle and hooked nose.

Britain is home to 50% of the global population, and Norfolk provides some of the largest pupping sites in the UK. Horsey beach alone boasted over 2000 new pups in 2018.

Pups are born from October to late January after a 9-month gestation. Females give birth to single pups, although twins were once recorded in Horsey. Pups are born with yellowish fur, which turns to white. At birth, they weigh approximately 13kg and will gain 2kg a day while they drink their mother’s 60% fat milk. Their mothers stay with them for 3 weeks, and the pups will remain ashore for a further 3/4 weeks. They live off their blubber until they shed their white fur and hunger drives them to the sea.

Bulls arrive at the breeding site – known as a rookery – after the pregnant females, and seek to mate soon after birth. Males fight for dominance during this period and preside over a harem on his section of the beach. The fertilised egg doesn’t begin to develop for roughly 3 months. The female will then return ashore to give birth at the same time the following year.

You can see Grey Seals along the Norfolk coast year-round. The best times to spot them are during the pupping season, and also in the Spring when they come ashore to moult. Why not moor up at Horsey and pay them a visit? If your cruiser doesn’t fit under Potter Heigham bridge be sure to book a dayboat instead. The seals are unmissable!

To experience this waterway safari for yourself hire a broads cruiser or one of our waterside holiday cottages.

Be sure to show us your photographs when you get back!

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