North Norfolk is one of the driest parts of the British Isles but Sheringham is also one of the coldest parts of England in the winter as there is no land between here and the North Pole to deflect the bitter Arctic winds. However, a brisk walk along the promenade in winter is not without its rewards. The most obvious birds are the fearless Turnstones that run along the prom looking for any scraps that might come their way. In winter plumage they are largely black above and white below, and are one of the most northerly breeding waders in the world. They often sit on the rocks below the promenade, where they are joined by the scarcer Purple Sandpiper, another winter visitor from the northern tundra regions.
The winter months are also characterised by the skeins of overflying Pink-footed Geese, almost invariably in V-formation, which are moving between their nocturnal roosting areas on the exposed sandbanks in north-west Norfolk to their daytime feeding sites on the harvested sugar beet fields in east Norfolk. An infrequent but welcome winter visitor to the red berries of pyracantha and vibernum in town gardens is the delightful Waxwing, a most attractive Starling-sized bird with a distinctive crest and red and yellow markings on the wings.
The first sign of spring is often the appearance of a few Black Redstarts on and around the seafront buildings, the unmistakable black males, with a white wing flash and a quivering chestnut tail, the females a rather dull grey but still sporting the reddish tail.
As the days lengthen in early spring, attention turns to the first-returning summer migrants and there is no better place to look for them than on the open grassy areas of Sheringham Golf Course. Some of the earliest are the Wheatears flashing their white rumps as they fly away across the turf, and a few weeks later the fairways are graced by beautiful Yellow Wagtails, as they move north from their sub-Saharan wintering areas. Sand Martins, browner above and smaller than the familiar Swallows, also arrive back in early spring from their African winter haunts and excavate their nest holes in the soft, sandy cliff faces.
Fortunately Skylarks are still reasonably abundant in the Sheringham area and along the cliff top fields are joined by Meadow Pipits, with their characteristic parachuting song display. A few pairs of Stonechats, the males adorned with a black head, white collar and reddish breast, nest near the coastal footpath and are often seen perched on the top of the gorse bushes. Gull-like Fulmars glide effortlessly above the sandy cliffs, where a few pairs still nest on the narrow ledges. Formerly many more pairs bred on the cliffs between Sheringham and Weybourne but numbers fell due to nest predation by foxes and rats, as well as by regular cliff falls.
As midsummer approaches the sky above the town is the haunt of Swifts scything and screaming through the air after aerial insects. Reasonable numbers still nest in the roof spaces of some of the older properties, but sadly House Martins now nest under the eaves of very few of the houses.
‘Twixt sea and pine’, the words which are incorporated into the Sheringham town sign, albeit in Latin, admirably describe the delightful setting of this north Norfolk town, for to the south lies the Cromer to Holt Ridge, composed of glacial clays, sands and gravel which at Roman Camp reaches over 90 metres, thus becoming the highest point in the county. Pretty Corner and Sheringham Park are part of this wooded ridge, and with their ravines and valleys are more reminiscent of Wales than Norfolk. A visit to either of these locations in summer will be rewarded with a fine selection of birds associated with both broad-leaved woodland, as well as conifer stands. Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and a variety of warblers and tits will be encountered. While the smallest British bird, the Goldcrest, will be found in the conifers, and its rarer relative the Firecrest, recognised by a distinct white stripe above the eye, is more likely to be seen in ivy entwined around the trunks of deciduous trees.
On the east of the town lie Beeston and Sheringham Commons, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) consisting of 61 acres of grassland, heath, marsh, fen and secondary woodland. The varied habitats ensure a rich mixture of fauna and flora, especially flowering plants and insects, such as butterflies and dragonflies, as well as birds. The small pond is one of the best places in Sheringham to see the dazzling Kingfisher and even hosted a Bittern one winter.
A northerly gale in autumn guarantees that the seafront shelters on the Leas will be full of expectant birders with a battery of telescopes. The strong onshore winds force large numbers of seabirds, wildfowl and waders to pass through the inshore waters off the north Norfolk coast. Day counts for some species, such as Gannets, Common Scoters and Dunlin may even approach a thousand individuals, while the icing on the cake is provided by Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, Great and Arctic Skuas, and Little Auks in later autumn, in addition to rarities such as Sabine’s Gulls and Leach’s Petrels.
Although overshadowed by its illustrious neighbour, Cley, just a few miles west along the coast, over 260 species of bird have been recorded in the Sheringham area and rarely does a year pass without at least one addition being made.
Kindly contributed by Moss Taylor