Easter has struck early and with it a new season of family events has kicked in at nature reserves all around the county, in fact for some Easter has marked their opening for the summer season. I've spent time over the last week helping out at both Norfolk Wildlife Trust Ranworth Broad and RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. The welcome onslaught of visitors has been at times akin to a tornado touching earth; the respective visitor centres awhirl with holidaying families, keen birders and local people who, having spent a long winter imprisoned by winter's chill, have at last been released to savour the singular sense of light and space these slices of Broadland can offer. Brief impressions of time I spent at these excellent local venues are clumsily given below
NWT Ranworth Broad
Spring is bursting all around. The wet woodland surrounding the boardwalk from Ranworth village is resounding to the thrill of vibrant birdsong; wrens, robins, woodpeckers and chiffchaffs boldly staking out territories whilst hidden Cetti's warblers explode their loud clatter of notes from deep cover; songthrushes pouring forth their sweet, varied repertoire from the mature trees on the higher borders of the reserve whilst marsh harriers and buzzards float lazily over the reed beds of this special water world. An otter entertained some lucky visitors early on, briefly poking its broad, flat head above the surface of the broad before submerging with a flick of its thickly furred tail; thereafter a trail of gently popping bubbles accompanied by the harsh squawking of enraged black-headed gulls provided the only clue to its whereabouts. The sighting over in an instant but for a few the memory will linger.
At the eastern end of the trail, the wardens of the Bure Valley Living Landscape have completed their annual reed cutting. This allows the multitude of special plants that flower here during the summer to flourish; milk parsley that life-giver to the swallowtail, ragged robin, marsh marigold, meadowsweet and loosestrife. This intensive management work is vital to ensure the reed bed remains in good health and is a small scale example of the work undertaken all over the Broads. By June the new reed growth will be chest high, buzzing with the vibrancy of insects and migrant warblers.
During these Easter holidays the weather has, predictably, been unpredictable. A brilliant opening day gave way to showers and strong winds over the Easter weekend before a return to spring sunshine. But even during inclement spells, beauty could be found with dramatic sunlit vistas of vivid spring green foliage highlighted against an evil looking dark cloudscape. Rainbows as a backdrop to sun kissed bows of motor cruisers; surely the season in a nutshell. The milder conditions with south-easterly winds brought delight in the form of three swallows that briefly flirted around the Visitor Centre on the last day of a changeable March. They were nowhere to be seen the following day, an April Fool's joke to all that thought they were 'our' swallows come back to reclaim their summer home.
Of all the birds that epitomise Ranworth though, it is surely the great crested grebes that steal the show. At this time of year they are in peak condition, displaying to one another in full view of admiring onlookers. On a lunch break sitting quietly by the less watched portion of the broad, I was lucky enough to witness a courtship display by a pair that seem intent on setting up home in a sheltered bay. With no aquatic weeds available to them with which to perform their dramatic dances in this sadly polluted environment, the birds made do with a clump of debris plucked from a low growing bough. How wonderful to witness this intimate moment at such close quarters and be able to admire the birds in all their seasonal finery.
Although the grebes will soon build their flimsy floating platform and lay a clutch of real eggs, it was smaller more fat enriched fare that our younger human visitors craved. Chocolate Easter eggs: a prize for completing the regular Easter Eggsplorer quiz. This is always a popular activity and helps entertain the children whilst allowing mum and dad to take a breather. Those eggs were delicious.
RSPB Strumpshaw Fen
Here is a more accessible, subtly different, environment with its consequent different mix of wildlife and people. On the middle weekend of the Easter period the reserve played host to some real birding gems: firecrest and an obliging penduline tit. The firecrest probably a migrant moving through, the penduline tit a long stayer and potential breeder - assuming it can find a mate. The combined attraction of this avian duo and a children's Easter Egg trail resulted in an interesting and amusing (to me at least) mix of camouflage coated birders making a heads down bee line to the birds, whilst herds of boisterous and excited children careered through the woods en-route to their next activity station. A majority of birders wearily returned a couple of hours later trudging back to their cars with long faces, species unticked, but the children remained happy.
During lulls in the action I had a look for the birds myself. I eventually connected with the firecrest as it tirelessly skittered through a dense tangle of ivy. A lovely little bird and one that is always a delight to the eye. Although this one will in all probability move on soon, it was intriguing to hear that two more were seen together in a different part of the reserve. Potential breeders? Time will tell.
As for the penduline tit I drew another blank. I've been vaguely looking for the bird for the last couple of months, but it has proved most elusive. Today it was seen by some lucky people off and on either tazzing around at the top of a blossoming cherry by the river, or on reed mace by Fen Hide. With the gaggles of long-lensed birders milling around both areas my heart wasn't really into joining the fray, so I contented myself with an hour in the hide itself.
Here in the relative peace and calm you have a wonderful view of the reed bed. Today the marsh harriers were in full swing with several gorgeous males sky dancing over their territories, broadcasting their far carrying yelping display call. As I watched these birds stooping and swirling over the reeds there came to my ear the excited whistling of a kingfisher, and soon a male bird whirred into view and perched on a stake positioned in the water.This bird made several attempts to fish, hovering in hummingbird fashion a few metres above the surface before plummeting head first into the still waters. It was a little too far away for serious photography, but I reeled off a few shots which were not entirely unsuccessful. Great birding and a successful family event on such a fine, sunny spring day.
It is good to be in these places again and to feel part of something important. Spreading the message of conservation to the general public whose support for the work of both organisations is crucial. The smiles on the faces of the visitors told of an enjoyable experience and that gives satisfaction enough for the first few days of what will, I’m sure, be a season full of wonderful wildlife and people.