I always thought I’d have to travel to the Norfolk Broads to see a bittern.

The shy, plump, heron-like bird – famous for its booming mating call – is found at only a handful of sites in the UK, notably the reed beds of the Broads. Yet on my first visit to Fairburn Ings I was amazed to see it listed on the ‘recent sightings’ board. He had been seen, and photographed at Phalarope Pool, on the outskirts of the popular RSPB reserve.

I couldn’t wait to set off across the sturdy wooden boardwalks that criss cross areas of the wetland to see if I could spot, or more likely hear – their call can be heard more than two miles away – the elusive creature.

Nestled between Leeds, Wakefield and York, Fairburn Ings is a green haven, with a lake, ponds and woodland, stretching for 700 acres alongside the River Aire. Teeming with wildlife, it is a nature lovers’ paradise in all seasons.

It was a warm day when we visited, and immediately headed out along one of a number of trails. These vary in length and topography – some are suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs, others are more uneven and require sturdy footwear.

We opted for the two-mile Riverbank trail, beginning with a walk across dense reed beds surrounding a pond where children could be seen kneeling on dipping platforms clutching fishing nets.

Six-year-old Frankie Walker and his friend Lennon Walsh, three, had come for the afternoon with their mums Joanne and Julie. “We like looking in the pond to see what we can find,” says Frankie. He points to the middle of the water. “There’s a bird on that nest over there.”

Sure enough, a small island of sticks is home to a coot, a black bird with a distinctive white beak and ‘shield’ above that gives it the title ‘bald’.

The families, who live locally, are regulars at the beauty spot. “There is loads for the boys to see and investigate, it is very educational,” says Julie. “It’s good exercise in fresh air as well,” adds Joanne.

Beside the track information boards identify pond life, letting visitors know that the long-bodied blue and black insect hovering above the water isn’t a dragonfly but the smaller damselfly.

Dragonflies at the pond include the black-tailed skimmer, a fattish-looking dragonfly whose males have blue abdomens with a black tip, and the four-spotted chaser, whose uniform brown colouring is lacklustre in comparison.

Further along the track a small beck is visible through peep-holes in a screen. These allow people to spot kingfishers, regular visitors to specially-erected posts and branches above the water. We watched for around ten minutes, but were out of luck. A little wren, flitting back and forth with bits of foliage in his mouth, made up for the absence of the brightly-coloured bird.

The path led upwards, providing views across grassland awash with wild flowers including orchids. Over the horizon, a view of the River Aire then came into sight.

Further along, a series of hides allow you to observe the incoming and outgoing avian traffic. We spotted geese, although I’m not sure what variety, squealing terns, swans and plenty of ducks. I’d love to have seen a great crested grebe – they have been spotted here, but like the bittern, they didn’t put in an appearance.

The reserve is vast – it was created on a landscape changed by 150 years of mining. All the areas of open water – there are around a dozen of different sizes including the lake – were formed through the subsidence of coal workings up to half a kilometre underground.

About a third of the site has been developed from 26 million cubic metres of colliery spoil, some of which remains visible, while much of the rest has been disguised with trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers.

‘Why are there so many nettles?’ an information board asks, before describing how the ings is a washland, meaning that when the River Aire floods, it floods too.

‘The river water makes the soil so much richer, and perfect for nettles,’ it explains. There may be a lot of nettles, which is good news for wildlife – the stinging nettle supports more than 40 species of insect – but don’t worry, they don’t cross your path.

The word ‘ings’ is Norse for ‘land that floods’. In the 2007 spell of wet weather, the site was two metres under water.

Around 80,000 people visit Fairburn Ings each year, but the place is large enough to absorb them without feeling overcrowded.

After watching birds wheel across the lake, we walked to the smaller Pickup Pool and watched sand martins darting in and out of holes in a purpose-built wall.

As we left, a heron flew overhead.

Dotted around the reserve are fixed feeders, where birds can be seen at relatively close quarters. We watched tropical-looking greenfinches and goldfinches tucking in.

The spacious visitor centre has a hot and cold drinks machine, plus a selection of sandwiches and other snacks. RSPB staff and volunteers are on hand to answer questions. Throughout the year special events including workshops, family fun days and nestbox-making activities are held. We spotted the fruits of one of these days as we left – a huge bug hotel built by children out of wooden pallets, old tiles, plant pots, wood and other bits and pieces. It looked very cosy.