Thursday, 15 January 2015

A mid-winter visit to Ranworth

Barry Madden, NWT Volunteer

A mid-winter visit to NWT Ranworth Broad seldom disappoints and today it looked wonderful bathed as it was in the rich glow from the low-angle on a January sun. 

Black headed gull at Ranworth Staithe
First stop was to watch people feeding the ducks by the Staithe. Here the mallards are joined by a flotilla of coots, a pair of cantankerous swans and the ever present and watchful black headed gulls. These latter opportunists, visitors from the Baltic perhaps, mug the local wildfowl of their stale bread and buns, swooping and plunging with marvellous ease and sometimes plucking the morsel from the air before it makes contact with the cold water. Most were adults, some beginning to moult into their summer plumage sporting a mottling of brown head feathers amidst plumage of silver grey; one or two were first winter birds with smudged wing coverts and light orange beaks. All were hungry, but not for long if the steady procession of young children carrying plastic bags full of promise was anything to go by. The nutritional value of the starch and sugar on offer is debatable, but such activity sometimes represents the first, sadly maybe only, contact young people have with wildlife. If they revel in the frantic scrabbling of the ducks and hoot with laughter when one stands on the others foot in the melee and gets a peck for its trouble, then surely that can only be good? Lifelong love affairs with nature have been birthed from less.

Next a stroll along the boardwalk that leads through the NWT reserve. The wet woodland Carr was at first eerily quiet, seemingly devoid of life, but standing still for a few minutes soon changed that impression. First to show themselves were a small charm of goldfinches quietly teasing seeds from high in the alders above. Closer inspection of the tree tops revealed one or two siskins amongst them and, delight of delights, a lovely pink hued redpoll. A flight of chaffinches cascaded into the lower branches, closely followed by a buzzing party of hyper-active long tailed tits. A tree creeper scuttled up a slender birch trunk and a distant nuthatches fluty chirrup gave a hint that maybe spring isn't too far away. And then a robin, and another and in the distance a third uttered its thin warbling song. There is much to appreciate here; be patient and the wildlife won't disappoint.

Ranworth, photo by Mike Page
Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s visitor centre at the end of the boardwalk, unique in design and an aesthetic masterpiece, was closed for the winter, its anchor chains straining to hold the building steady against the choppy waters whipped up by a strengthening nor-Easter. But good views of the broad could still be had by taking advantage of the specially constructed raised platform nearby. From this elevated vantage point many wildfowl could be more easily seen. Rafts of wigeon had gathered to rest, the chestnut heads of the drakes glowing against the rippling grey water. These visitors from Iceland or Russia will spend much time feeding on the grazing marshes hereabouts, perhaps at Upton where Norfolk Wildlife Trust has made great strides to ensure the low lying floodplain is ideally suited to the needs to wintering wildfowl. Interspersed amongst the whistling wigeon were smaller numbers of teal, shoveler and mallard. Several cormorants, wings spread heraldic, dotted the far shore and a distant marsh harrier battled the swirling air currents in its quest to find an unwary meal to sustain it through another cold winter night. The wind here has nothing to obstruct its path - time to move and seek some shelter.

The walk back to the staithe first took us through the reed bed which although small is well managed for its surprising range of wild flowers and invertebrate life. Of course none of this was on offer today, but what glorious compensation was to be had by the sight of thousands of backlit seed heads dancing candle-like in the breeze. I've tried on several occasions to capture this atmospheric scene with my camera, but have never obtained a satisfactory image; it is only worth experiencing at first hand. It won't be long before NWT reserve staff come along to cut one side of this area of reed to allow important plants like milk parsley, beloved by the swallowtail butterfly, to flourish.

The visit ended with a cup of tea at the church cafe and a walk through the churchyard where a mole had been busy burrowing under the conservation patch. Turn left at the church gate and you complete the circuit. Ranworth is a small village but has a number of year round attractions. It is a well-functioning mosaic with Norfolk Wildlife Trust playing a key role in this true living landscape. Pay a visit, you will be well rewarded.

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