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Bird life and flora of Wells Harbour

James McCallum

Wells Harbour runs essentially North South from its mouth, along its tidal channel to Wells Quay. Its route dissects some of the richest coastal habitats for wildlife in the British Isles. The beach bank follows its course for a mile from the quay towards the lifeboat house. This sea wall marks the boundary between reclaimed saltmarsh, now agricultural land, to the west whilst to the east lays one of the richest and largest expanses of saltmarshes in North Western Europe. Beyond the lifeboat house reveals an area of mudflats on the east side of the harbour and the beginnings of miles of open sandy shores, before we come to the harbour's mouth and the open North Sea. These areas are extremely important for wildlife, in particular birds, and are part of the Holkham National Nature Reserve.

The pattern and abundance of wildlife varies greatly during the seasons. This is most readily obvious in its flora and bird life. The saltmarshes in summer have a succession of flowering salt resistant plants. Thrift or Sea Pink is one of the most dominant early flowering plants but it is the carpets of pale purple Sea-lavender flowering in late summer that are the most impressive and well-known. Some of the fleshy green plants such as Samphire and the Seablights have tiny non-descript flowers but in late summer and early autumn the leaves take on a multitude of shades and hues of pink and purple.

For birds, the year is split into their breeding season, which runs approximately from early April to the end of July, and the winter, which sees large numbers of waders and waterfowl using the harbour. Many species settle here for the winter. Geese are in modern times a real feature of the harbour. The most regular are the small grey and black Brent geese and several thousand pink footed geese. These roost on the inter tidal sands to the east of the harbour mouth and can be seen flying in great skeins at dawn and dusk moving between the harbour and the feeding areas in breathtaking numbers. The spring and autumn are the main migration times and are busy with summer and winter visitors coming and going.

Wells Quay

In the summer months, look out for fishing Little Terns and Common Terns. Turnstones, small wading birds, are white below with dark backs and chests and orange legs. They frequently gather with Starlings to feed on scraps on the quay. Cormorants, large and blackish, often haul out on the sand with their wings held out to dry. In the winter months tiny Little Grebes can be seen diving for small fish, shrimps or prawns.

Keep an eye open for the black and white, yellow-eyed drake Goldeneye among the familiar Mallards and Mute Swans. Probably the most familiar species of wildlife for many people are Shore Crabs, known locally as 'Gillies'. Catching them is a great source of fun for families. Avoid using hooks for holding bait as stray hooks have been responsible for Swan deaths.

East Quay

Although not as productive as the main channel these, the more upper reaches of the harbour, are frequently quieter than the quay and can be a place to get good views of wading birds such as Oystercatchers and Redshanks, the latter with their distinctive bright red legs. In the winter, there is a chance to glimpse sky species like the small dark streaked Rock Pipet or the dazzling Kingfisher.

Beach bank and Channel

This is a great walk to see wildlife in all seasons. Curlews are used to people here and are among the tamest on the whole coast. Terns are regular in the summer and eye catching Little Egrets are resident here. In recent years, these small white herons have rapidly colonised the area. Mallards, gulls and waders gather at the mouth of the fresh water sluice close to the town to wash and preen. In the winter months, they are joined by large numbers of Brent Geese. This is an important loafing area for lots of birds so try to avoid disturbing them here.

Wading birds can be tricky to identify in winter, most being essentially grey but they all have certain telltale marks. Grey Plovers are medium-sized with short, stout bills and large black eyes. They have pondering movements and their identity can be confirmed when they lift their wings to reveal while under wings and jet black 'armpits'. Dunlins are quite common. They're small, grey above and white below with a longish, slightly down-curved black bill. Outside the breeding season, the beach bank sees large numbers of Pied Wagtails gathering in the evening before heading to roost on yachts and in the marshes.

Lifeboat House and Harbour mouth

To the east of the channel is an area of mudflats exposed at low tide which attracts large numbers of waders. Although distant, bigger flocks of Oystercatchers can be identified. In winter, Knot gather in tight flocks, sometimes into four figures. This abundance of birds attracts aerial predators and Peregrines are occasionally seen. A line of pine trees known as the East Hills draws the eye and many people may venture over the channel at low tide to explore or gather cockles. These can be very dangerous areas as the tide flows fast so are best avoided without sound knowledge. Look out for sea ducks and divers in the winter months. Mergansers, Goldeneyes or Eiders can sometimes be seen in small numbers, while the occasional seal can be spotted entering the channel at any time of year.

There are miles of open beaches to enjoy here. A few small areas are fenced off in summer for nesting birds. Please try to avoid these areas and keep your dogs on leads as the Terns and shore birds are very prone to disturbance.

James McCallum is a wildlife artist living and working in North Norfolk. For information on his paintings and books, visit