In 2021 we have recorded an amazing 226 bird species at Titchwell, the highest number in the four years that I have been here. The breeding season was disappointing, not helped by the weather, with low productivity (number of chicks fledged). However, the Freshwater Habitats and Beach nesting bird project are aiming to improve this.

January – March

There was an eery absence of people for the first three months of the year because of lockdown 3.0.

The reserve team were able to complete the monthly winter bird counts and the winter harrier roost counts. In January 43 marsh harriers roosted on the reserve dropping down to 23 in March, and a ringtail hen harrier roosted on the reserve for most of the winter.

 A highlight for February was 3 white fronted geese flying through on the 23rd.

Towards the end of March, the spring migrants began to arrive with the first little ringed plover on the 22nd, followed by the first sand martins and sandwich terns on the 25th. On the 29th March the swallows and wheatears arrived. A flurry of spring migrants arrived on the 31st March including black redstart, common redstart, sedge warbler, common sandpiper, and willow warbler, two common cranes flew over as well.

Common redstart - Phill Gwilliam

On the Freshmarsh, Mediterranean gulls arrived back, but in lower numbers than previous years, though more were recorded at Snettisham and on Scolt Head.

A white-tailed eagle drifted over the reserve on Tuesday 30 March. The eagle was identified as G471, a male bird that was released on the Isle of Wight in 2020 as part of the Isle of Wight reintroduction scheme. It continued towards King Lynn and over the Easter weekend it tracked south along the River Ouse, flying over several other RSPB reserves


As we entered April our hides, shop and indoor catering remained closed, but we began to welcome more visitors back to Titchwell.

We attempted to start our breeding bird surveys but we were hit with biting northerly winds, snow and frosts so the surveys were delayed slightly. However, the bittern wasn’t put off, it had been booming regularly for nearly a month and two great white egrets were being seen daily.

Three black redstarts were feeding in the horse paddocks between 2nd and 4th April and on the 6th April a Norwegian colour ringed glaucous gull appeared on the Freshmarsh.  

Further spring migrants arrived on the 9th April in the form of a yellow wagtail and the first grasshopper warbler arrived on the 14th, with 2 heard reeling on the 19th. Slightly later than normal the reed warblers began arriving on the 16th, followed by whimbrels and common whitethroats on the 17th. The highlight on Saturday 17th April was the discovery of a bluethroat by the west bank path, although it proved to be very elusive. It eventually showed enough of itself to be identified as a white-spotted bluethroat. It was still present on Sunday 18th April, where several of us were able to enjoy its song but catching a glimpse of it was challenging. It departed early on the 19th April.

The first cuckoo and green sandpiper arrived on the 18th April, on time, whereas the first house martin was not recorded until 25th April, nearly 4 weeks later than usual. Other April highlights included 6 cranes flying over on the 22nd, a whinchat on the 24th, a ring ouzel and jack snipe on the 25th and the first swift arriving ‘on-time’ on the 26 April.

At the end of April common terns, lesser whitethroats and little tern all arrived later than normal, no doubt because northerly winds prevailed for much of the month, slowing migration down all along the Norfolk coast.

Ringed plover - Les Bunyan


As we entered May the cold, northerly winds continued, coinciding with spring high tides covering the entire beach at Titchwell. A relief that there were no ringed plovers nesting just yet.

This cold spring resulted in far fewer black-headed gulls and Mediterranean gulls nesting on the reserve. Many moving to the sheltered areas at RSPB Snettisham. However, our bittern was continuing to boom within the reedbed.

On the 3rd May a Temminck’s stint dropped onto the Freshmarsh briefly before flying off over willow woods. The first osprey of the year was seen on flying west offshore on the 5th May and on the 7th May we welcomed back the first turtle dove of the year.

With a slight change in wind direction on the 9th May a woodlark flew west amongst a steady passage of swallows, house martins and sand martins. On the 10th May the first spotted flycatcher was seen along the meadow trail and a further two arrived on the 27th.

Whilst we were completing an evening bittern survey on the 11th May a cattle egret flew east over the reedbed and we were also treated to incredible views of a male Montague’s harrier drifting through the reserve. A personal highlight for me at Titchwell this year.

By the middle of the month the first garden warbler arrived, over a month late compared to the previous four years along with the first hobby, which was two weeks late in comparison.

The 20th May was a great day on the reserve when an Alpine Swift which had been tracked along the Norfolk coast when it zipped over the west bank path in front of two of our regular visitors and in the evening a red-rumped swallow was identified over the reedbed.

An Iceland gull and purple sandpiper appeared on the beach on the 23rd May.

A week after Chris had the alpine swift fly past him on the west bank path, he found two bee-eaters flying past him in the same spot!  That evening a honey buzzard was reported to have flown over the reserve.

The final surprise for May was the fledging of our first two marsh harrier chicks on the 27th, normally they don’t fledge until late June - early July!

Juvenile marsh harrier - Les Bunyan


With the summer migrants having now arrived and the breeding season well under way June was a steady month on the reserve. Though two rosy starlings on the 9th June were a pleasant surprise.

Early June was the start of the ‘autumn’ wader passage with the arrival of the first spotted redshank and on the 10th a wood sandpiper arrived and remained until the 14th June along with a curlew sandpiper.

On the 16th June a purple heron popped up from the reedbed briefly, just long enough for a photo to be taken, only to disappear and not to be seen again. This is the third year in the row we have recorded purple herons on the reserve, perhaps one day they will breed?

Record shot of the purple heron - Tim Stowe


July was another steady month on the reserve, a cattle egret was seen on the 7th and bittern sightings were becoming more regular.  

Despite an increase in nesting pairs (from 5 to 7) the only two ringed plover chicks to fledge in 2021 fledged at the beginning of July.

Autumn wader passaged continued with a pectoral sandpiper briefly dropping in on the 13th July before being chased off and on the 16th July a Pacific golden plover dropped in after being found at RSPB Snettisham earlier in the day. It remained on the reserve until the early morning of the 17th, a wood sandpiper was also present and a record avocet count of 810 birds!

Bittern - Phill Gwilliam


In August we finally began the Freshwater Habitats Project, transforming the Freshmarsh into three compartments. Despite two large amphibious machines working on the Freshmarsh, there was little impact on the birdlife. Throughout the month there were good numbers of black-tailed godwits, bar-tailed godwits, little stints, ringed plovers, curlew sandpipers and avocets.

The evening gull roost began picking up in August with 23 yellow-legged gulls coming in to roost on the 2nd August.

On the 9th August highlights included a green woodpecker, black tern, juvenile cuckoo, and a little stint on the beach and Freshmarsh. The following day the first willow warbler of the autumn arrived back at Titchwell.

A scarcity in 2021 at Titchwell but two turtle doves flew off the saltmarsh across into Titchwell village on 18th August.

As moved into the later part of the month, autumn migrants picked up a pace with the arrival of a purple sandpiper on the 21 August and a wheatear on the Freshmarsh. The following day two common redstarts appeared at Island hide, three wood sandpipers were on the Freshmarsh, four pied flycatchers and a wheatear at Thornham Point, a whinchat on the grazing marsh and a garden warbler in the extension car park.

At the end of August, it wasn’t just the Freshmarsh and the bushes that were full of birds but activity on the sea began to pick up. Between the 27th – 31st August arctic, great, and long-tailed skuas were reported along with sightings of Sabine’s gull and sooty shearwater.

Of the 20 pairs of avocets nesting at Titchwell in 2021, only the one chick fledged towards the end of August. Hopefully with the freshwater habitats project underway we can change this around from next year.

The start of freshwater habitats - Lance Fisher


The month began with pied flycatchers in the car park, visitor centre area and at Thornham point. A willow warbler was heard in song on the 3rd September and a wheatear perched on top of the sueda bushes on the 6th September.

On the 7th September a pectoral sandpiper appeared on the newly created south west compartment of the Freshmarsh. This bird remained on the Freshmarsh until the 30th September providing visitors with incredibly close views.

Pectoral sandpiper - Phill Gwilliam

On the 8th September a nuthatch was discovered along the autumn trail, this is a rare bird for the reserve.

Over the weekend of the 11th /12th September turtle doves were being sighted regularly on the dead trees near willow woods, including one juvenile bird. A ring ouzel flew west early on the morning of the 12th September.

On the evening of the 16th September two goosander dropped into the Freshmarsh briefly and a long-tailed skua flew east offshore.

The next day on the 17th September the first brambling of the autumn arrived, a tree pipit flew over on the 18th, and, on the 21st September, the first yellow-browed warbler of the autumn arrived. Though this species remained incredibly scarce throughout the autumn.

Wood sandpipers, curlew sandpipers, little stints, greenshanks, and spotted redshanks were all being reported in varying numbers across September as they migrated through the reserve.

Towards the end of September, the reserve began hosting a large starling roost with over 10,000 birds coming on to the Freshmarsh to pre roost and have a bath before darting into the reedbed. To our delight a rosy starling was discovered in amongst them on the 21st and continued coming into roost every evening until the 11th October.

Spot the rosy starling? - Les Bunyan


The good birds kept on coming in October, a dotterel snuck in amongst the 1000 golden plover on the Freshmarsh on the 4th October and single hawfinches flew over on the 8th and 9th.

Cattle egrets were seen on the 6th and 10th October, roosting on Patsy’s, a black tern flew through on the 6th October and finally another yellow-browed warbler appeared on the 11th October.

Snow buntings arrived for the winter on the 12th October, two shore larks and three Lapland buntings flew low along the dunes on the 18th. Towards the end of the month on the sea there were small flocks of little gull, a Slavonian grebe, little auk, two arctic terns and a great northern diver.

The star of October was the grey phalarope which was on the Freshmarsh from 15th – 25th October entertaining visitors with its unique spinning feeding behaviour.

Golden plover - Phill Gwilliam


Throughout November there were regular sightings of jack snipes, two hen harriers, snow buntings, water pipit, Lapland bunting, spotted redshank, Siberian chiffchaff and long-tailed duck.

An arctic tern was on the sea on the 2nd November and a three glossy ibis flew west over the reedbed, appearing to drop into the reedbed but we couldn’t relocate them.

Autumn migration doesn’t end in October, a red-breasted flycatcher was found on the 5 November, remaining until the 7th. Whilst watching the red-breasted flycatcher, two yellow browed warblers and a Siberian chiff chaff were found.

Activity on the sea picked up from the 10th with regular reports of Slavonian grebe, velvet scoter, great northern diver, black necked grebe and red-necked grebe. One of the best birds of the year was a flyby black guillemot on the 22nd.

On the 13th, 21st and 22nd a grey phalarope was reported flying through on the sea. Our second white-tailed eagle sighting of the year occurred on the 25th November and to end the month a juvenile glaucous gull was found on the beach.

Two grey phalarope - Phill Gwilliam


Throughout the month hen harriers, spotted redshank, Siberian chiffchaff, Long-tailed duck, water pipits, snow buntings, purple sandpiper, red necked grebe, Slavonian grebe and great northern divers have been reported across the reserve.

The December harrier roost count recorded 37 roosting marsh harriers and 20 roosting little egrets.

During December’s wetland bird count on the 6th a juvenile glaucous gull was found on the Freshmarsh. A redhead smew was found on the sea on the 17th December; a rare bird for Titchwell. And we end the year with three Bewick swans on the 27th and two scaup on Patsy’s on the 28th.

Glaucous gull - Matt Lonsdale

Of course, I couldn't mention every species otherwise we would have ended up with a book! But click the image below to read the full list of all 226 species recorded at Titchwell in 2021

And finally, can I say a huge thank you to everyone who has visited the reserve and shared their sightings with us either in person, via social media or using BirdTrack.

We look forward to seeing what 2022 has in store for the reserve.