Monday, 9 May 2016

Ranworth in May

Barry Madden, NWT Volunteer

There are few better places to spend a sunny May morning than at NWT Ranworth Broad. A week ago the skies were grey, the water turbulent and the air chill with the tendrils of winter still holding sway. Today it was fresh and bright, the water reflectively calm and the endless possibilities of summer hanging in the air.

At this season the difference a mere seven days makes can be quite profound. Whereas on the penultimate day of April only a few common terns were hawking over the broad now they are everywhere; chasing each other in courtship, vying with the black headed gulls for nest sites, squabbling over favoured perches and generally gracing the scene with their buoyant passage through air. A week ago the television screens in the visitor centre were trained on empty, forlorn and deserted swallow’s nests; today these so welcome harbingers of summer were fastidiously attending to their fragile cups of dried mud, tossing aside the accumulated detritus of winter ready to rebuild, reline and reproduce. On my last volunteering visit it was hard to believe any bird of the open fen could possibly incubate a clutch to hatching, but today the dedication and resilience of these hardy creatures was evident with broods of mallard, coot and moorhen being attended to by proud and protective parents. A lively scene then and surely one to celebrate.

But there was more to Ranworth today than just the regular resident and seasonal cast. Today was a special day, a day when some rather beautiful and irregular visitors stopped to say hello. The weather is to thank; low pressure bubbling up from the Continent sending spiralling anticlockwise airflows into the English Channel. Birds trying to migrate into the North Sea with the intention of reaching the Low Countries are met with strong breezes which sweep them along our south coast and displace them on our western shores. Black terns, gorgeous, dainty and lost. With the breeding imperative upon them they waste little time reorienting and head swiftly eastwards directly across country. It is at these times, occurring every few years, that we get a chance to see these lovely creatures refuelling over our waterways. The window is slight, perhaps only a day or two, and today was such a day.

Sensing some chance of an encounter, my first action on arriving at the visitor centre was to scan the open water hoping to see smaller, darker birds amongst the milling common terns. And sure enough there they were, three at least, hawking insects from the water surface at the back of the broad. Hoping to get better views, I hitched a lift on ‘Damselfly’ the boat we use for ferrying people to and from the staithe and for running our very popular Water Trail trips. Once aboard this spacious boat, the true tranquillity of the environment can be appreciated. On a day such as this one it was a pleasure to float close to dancing grebes, drift past unconcerned waterfowl and just take in the soporific atmosphere of this wonderful broadland retreat. 

We saw herons diving into the broad for fish, witnessed a kingfisher skimming the dead calm surface a couple of metres from where we sat, watched marsh harriers and buzzards lazily drifting on the warm air and spooked a party of loafing cormorants from their roost site. But we could not get close to the black terns; at least not close enough for me. They were there, tantalisingly present, but too full of life and too far away for satisfying views. Wherever the boat drifted, they would appear on the opposite side of the broad. There we could see them dancing together over the skyline before plunging towards the watery expanse to pick some tiny morsel from the surface. Time and again all morning they would perform in this way, but never close to.  Does it matter that I couldn’t get a close up photograph? Not one jot. What really matters is that they were there, these monochrome sprites that for a few hours on a sunny May morning brightened the lives of all who saw them.

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