Ranworth, a small and pleasant village in the heart of Broadland is a lovely place to stroll around on a bright winter’s day. I visited earlier this week savouring the blissful peace of the season. Gone now are the pleasure craft jostling for a berth at the busy staithe, the cruisers, canoes, day boats, and dinghies. Gone too are the steady stream of holidaymakers keen to take a short adventure through a freshwater swamp and visit the NWT Broads Wildlife Centre sited at the terminal point of a 500 metre Boardwalk. Gone are the screeching terns, the arrowing hobbies, the chuntering reed warblers and twittering swallows. But all is not still: a new cast of characters has moved in to take advantage of the tranquility. Birds of all kinds are using the unmolested waterways and wet woodland as a winter sanctuary; somewhere to rest and feed to survive another day. Come with me for a walk through this wildlife haven and together let’s see what we can find.
Our first stop is to search through the massed assemblage of twigs and branches forming the canopy of the swampy carr, lichen encrusted and bare of leaf. This matrix plays host to many small birds: blue, great and marsh tits busily fuss through the tangle searching tirelessly for small spiders and insects hidden from winters chill; robins, wrens and chaffinches occupy the lower tier where they root around in the undergrowth for small invertebrates, snails, and fallen seed; a few goldfinches twitter amongst themselves as they raid the topmost branches of an alder, their vibrant red faces adding a touch of the exotic. As we reach the transition from woodland to more open reed fen, blackbirds flush from a guelder rose clucking sulkily at our unwelcome intrusion. Fieldfares chuckling overhead in search of bright hawthorn berries to plunder remind us that winter has truly arrived despite the brilliance of the blue sky and the vibrant scarlet of the guelder fruits.
The open broad holds large rafts of wildfowl; showy shoveller, timid teal and grey-glossed gadwall, whilst all the time the piercing whistles of wigeon echo across the misty water. A buzzard spirals in from the south it's brown and white chequered underside catching the light from the mid afternoon sun. It drifts across the broad causing mass panic amongst the ducks and coots that take to the air on a multitude of flickering wings. But this raptor had no designs on them, it is intent only on quartering the farmland on the far side for carrion or perhaps an unlucky rabbit: easier pickings by far. A marsh harrier that appears a few minutes later is a different story and loiters with intent above the milling throng of startled water birds. It too is unlucky on this sortie and eventually moves into the distant reed beds in the hope of surprising more isolated prey.
As we stand close to the visitor centre a lone bullfinch flies above us uttering its distinctive mournful ‘phew’ and a small flock of siskins dance above the alders wittering excitedly to each other. The reason for the appearance of these hitherto well-hidden finches soon becomes clear in the form of a sparrowhawk that glides low across the channel moving silently and swiftly from one patch of scrub to another as it hunts with deadly purpose. It seemed such a short while ago that we could watch hobbies hawking dragonflies here, but their winter absence helps us to appreciate their summer presence; their return next April will be all the more welcomed for it.
The explosive song of a Cetti's warbler shakes us from our reverie and turning we catch the massed heads of dancing reeds set ablaze by the lowering sun. A dazzling spectacle and one that seems to typify this Broadland landscape; a Living Landscape of diverse habitats, fen, woodland, open water and farmland weaved together to form a rich tapestry where wildlife can find sanctuary.
Before returning home we can take a diverting stroll through the churchyard where blackbirds and songthrushes are busy gorging themselves on the berries of ancient yews. These birds, quite possibly migrants from Scandinavia or further east, swallow the berries whole allowing the nutritious succulent red flesh to be absorbed whilst the poisonous seeds pass through without being digested. They seem intent on stripping the bounteous fruits with maximum haste. Competition is fierce and they are all engaged in a race against time and each other.
But Ranworth hasn’t quite finished with us yet, for as we gaze up into a roadside ash a lovely kestrel peers down at us unafraid and unfussed. He is soaking up the last mellow rays of the afternoon sun; his rich buffs and brick reds glowing, his black eye sparkling. This bird like all others lives from day to day, unknowing of what the following dawn will bring. Today with bright blue skies and an unseasonal mildness comes relative easy living; tomorrow with bitter winds, rain and cold could come starvation.
Ranworth has done us proud and our visit at this quieter time of the year has shown real beauty and an escape, albeit temporary, from the rigours of our modern world. The wildlife is grateful for the wildness and so, I hope, are we.