Pre-dawn, and there is a distinctive chill in the air. A group of bird lovers are gathered in the visitor centre car park at Whitlingham Country Park, a 35-hectare spread of ancient woodland, meadows and trails around and alongside the Great and Little Broads by the village of Trowse.
Trowse lies one-and-a-half miles southeast of Norwich centre on the banks of the River Yare where, at Whitlingham, it is joined by the River Wensum. The original village grew up around the local water mill, now Trowse Millgate, and is one of a small family of model villages built from the late 18th century onwards by industrialists to house their workers. The Colman family created the village for workers at its mustard factory, and the family still owns much of the surrounding land.
Early birds rising
As I stomp my feet to keep warm I have a feeling of being watched. Ah, a pied wagtail is perched on the roof of the converted flint barn, overseeing proceedings. This is our first sighting on a dawn chorus walk with local wildlife expert Peter Walton. An eerie mist hovers over the still waters as we start a three-mile stroll around Great Broad. There is energy in the air; a quiet buzz of anticipation as the early birds rise. You get the feeling that something special is about to happen.
We have gathered in early spring, at the beginning of the breeding season, when birds start to sing not only to attract a mate, but also to establish a territory where they can nest, feed and raise a brood. It is not long before we hear our first songsters – the robin, blackbird, song thrush and mistle thrush. Peter tells me these early risers have better eyesight than other birds, so have an advantage when it comes to catching the early worm. He tells me they are also the last to sing at night. But that is hours away.
By 7am, more birds have awoken and are getting increasingly vocal. The great tit, wren, dunnock, blackcap, chiffchaff, finch – we are suddenly surrounded by a growing cacophony. Was that a woodpecker calling? Peter knows.
Not only are the birds singing at the tops of their voices because they want to be heard, but also because they are happy for their fine plumage to be seen at this time of year to attract mates. Of course, you get the shy, retiring ones. But then you get the great tits. The male boasts an extended vocabulary of calls, and will change its song and mimic calls as it moves around its territory. Not only are they warning off other great tits, but also warning off neighbouring species.
As the sun rises, it brings with it a display of colour; rays filter through the trees, and light glints across the water, reflecting the nearby Norwich skyline. According to Peter, to get the best variety of wildlife, you need to have the best variety of habitats. Whitlingham, built on the site of a quarry, with its Conservation Area, waterways and mixed woodland, has it in bundles.
If you want to experience more of its wildlife, Whitlingham runs moth and bat evenings, pond dipping and quarry safaris. There’s also lots of water-based activities on its broads, including sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and rafting.
Hidden among the trees are the ruins of Trowse Newton Hall, originally the country retreat of the Priors of Norwich Cathedral. In 1335, Kind Edward III and Queen Phillipa of Hainault stayed at the hall, having arrived from Norwich in a fleet of lavishly decorated rowing boats. As we leave the Great Broad path, I see swans and geese gather along the water’s edge. The mallards have a lot to say for themselves. We enter a patch of trees and listen out for treecreepers.
Peter explains the distinctive ‘jizz’ of birds – an adaptation of the wartime saying, “a general impression of the size and shape of an unidentified aircraft”. Jizz is all about the appearance, movement and impressions of birds. We are just getting into a ‘jizz’ moment when those early risers feel inclined to join in again, so we soon get lost in a second dawn chorus. The chorus grows even more chaotic as the spring season progresses, and yet more birds arrive, including the warblers.
Peter beams with enthusiasm: “That is when the dawn chorus starts to get really exciting.”
HOW TO GET THERE
Whitlingham Country Park is a 10-minute drive from Norwich centre. Follow signs for Trowse, turn left down Whitlingham Lane and head for Little and Great Broad. By bus, take either the 58 or 58a service from Norwich centre to Whitlingham Lane, from where it’s a 25-minute walk to the country park.
FIND OUT MORE
WHITLINGHAM COUNTRY PARK
Trowse NR14 8TR
Peter’s next Dawn Chorus walk will be 3 May, starting at 6am. Meet at Whitlingham Visitor Centre.
MORE DAWN CHORUS WALKS
The National Trust are running many dawn chorus walks and events throughout spring across the country, including a walk on Wenlock Edge in Shropshire on 21 April, a ramble with a ranger at Gibside in Tyne and Wear on 29 April, and a three-mile walk on Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire on 6 May.
ESSEX WILDLIFE TRUST
On 5 and 13 May, Essex Wildlife Trust are running a Bats, Birds, Bluebells and Breakfast walk at Hanningfield Reservoir, where you can enjoy a dawn chorus followed by a full English breakfast.
The RSPB’s dawn chorus events include a walk in Eartham Woods in West Sussex on 28 April, a two-mile walk in Sidney Wood, Surrey on 3 May and a guided walk followed by breakfast at Rainham Marshes, Essex on 13, 20 and 27 May.