Barry Madden, NWT Volunteer
Away from the brisk westerly breeze sweeping across the swaying mops of fading pink hemp agrimony, apart from the rustling of thousands of swaying reed stems, we found a sheltered spot in the lee of gnarled and twisted birch. Here was the domain of the dragonfly. Atop every dead stem a common darter perched, its multi-faceted eyes scanning the area around its chosen observation point for potential prey or a mate. We watched these four winged predators as they sparred, hunted and courted, arrowing through the warm August air on their short-lived mission to foster another generation. We were quite mesmerised by these jewels of the insect world; wings glistening, backlit against the burning sun of high summer. With the aid of binoculars every minute hair on the dragonflies legs could be seen, every vein on the paper thin wings, every hexagonal lens of their bulbous, rich brown compound eye. The challenge of course was to photograph these sparkling miracles of nature and do justice to their form; an impossible task really, but we felt compelled to try and capture something of their ethereal beauty and record the moment.
The venue for this spell of insect photography was the wonderful Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Hickling Broad. I can remember the first time I espied this rather special place. On that occasion it was from the high ground near Martham on a pristine June day the best part of half a century ago.
Me and my young friends had spent the day aimlessly cycling along country lanes with no particular destination in mind and here we were taking a breather whilst overlooking the famous Broadland haven. Eric Hosking was to blame for us having knowledge of this place; his autobiographical work ’An Eye for a Bird’ had enthralled us and filled our young minds with visions of exotic places and even more exotic birds. But the most interesting aspect of the book (borrowed regularly from the local library) was the whole chapter devoted to Hickling, a place held dear to his heart and one this pioneering photographer visited regularly during the war years. Within this chapter were accounts of intimately close encounters with bitterns, bearded tits, harriers, both marsh and Montagu’s, as well as anecdotes concerning other species we had hardly heard of let alone dreamed of seeing. But it was getting late, the sun slowly lowering into the western sky and we had 20 miles to cycle home. The reserve was tantalisingly close but its exploration would have to wait for another day.
As it happened that day was many years in the future; the 1980s in fact when I began to visit the area regularly to watch the harriers and cranes coming in to roost at Stubb Mill, then simply a raised muddy bank, exposed and lonely. And it wasn't until I started working for NWT much later still that I got to know the reserve better. Of course much has changed since the days of Hosking. NWT now manages a vast area of this unique landscape allowing public access to much of it year round. Summer boat trips take eager eyed visitors to secret niches where otters, spoonbills, waders and purple hairstreaks can be seen, whilst the Visitor Centre ensures a warm welcome. But the essential wildness remains; acres of reed interspersed with shallow creeks where the billowing sails of river craft glide sedately past. Wide open skies punctured by silhouettes of wind pumps and stands of wet woodland. Broadland at its most evocative.
For all that, it can sometimes seem an empty place, frustratingly devoid of the bird life for which it is renowned. But then a brown spangled form will rise from the reeds and fly over your head, a bittern moving between feeding stations. Or yelps from lapwings will alert you to a passing peregrine. A feeling of being watched will make you look up into the spindly oaks to find a pair of fledgling tawny owls curiously gazing down at you and a gang of bug hunting children, or you will find a swathe of marsh thistle where swallowtails dance supping nectar. Or as today you will chance upon a quiet, sheltered spot where a swarm of dragonflies entertain you with their aerobatics beyond anything man can, or ever will, be able to achieve.
We were privileged to have a brief encounter with creatures whose world we will never fully understand and whose pedigree is eon. Soon this year’s generation will succumb to the gathering chill of autumn but for the next few weeks they will buzz around this excellent nature reserve completing their life cycle. Go look, go experience their mastery of the air, go to simply celebrate their existence, go because you can.