A good day to be alive

PUBLISHED: 10:35 11 February 2014 | UPDATED: 10:35 11 February 2014

Hickling Broad, sunrise. Copyright RIchard Osbourne

Hickling Broad, sunrise. Copyright RIchard Osbourne

© Copyright RIchard Osbourne

Sometimes in midwinter, between the many days that lurk like cold dishwater or hurl their almost frozen rain on us, there comes a day of clear skies on which the low rays of the sun ooze across the Norfolk landscape like egg-yolk, basting gold the wintry trunks of birches and gilding every thing they touch. This is a day for shelving jobs at home, for donning gloves and woolly hats, for slipping binoculars around your neck, and heading to the Broads.

Now, at Ranworth, Upton or at Hickling, this horizontal light shines through the glassy berries of guelder rose, setting them aflame. Now the alders crowding round the boardwalk buzz with redpolls and among them is the single introspective note of a siskin. Now the trees trill with long-tailed tits, twirling like tinsel strings about their boughs. A marsh tit sneezes from deep within the carr and in the reed beyond a Cetti’s warbler gives his syncopated plink.

Reaching the reeds you realise you’re not alone. A furry, gingery face, black-nosed, big-eared, peers at you from the marsh, eyes glinting in the same sun. A Chinese water deer: At home, but not at home here, brought by the vanity of humans but so much a part of these reed-beds of the Bure and Ant and Thurne, that the Broads would not be themselves without him now.

The deer darts, leaving flooding footprints in the blackish mud, and the reed a silent veil of winter dun. But here is the next year’s life too. Beneath the mud, reed rhizomes store up this year’s energy for the next year’s seven feet of growth. Low among the wind-whipped stems are the pupae of swallowtails; Norfolk butterflies, which in May and June will float like scraps of scribbled tissue paper over the still dull reed, dropping to flaming flowers of campion and seeking out the leaves of milk parsley on which to lay their eggs.

But these heady days of May are distant imaginings now. The pupae sleep, the reeds rest, and the milk parsley will not be seen for months to come. Winter’s colour, blazing on this one bright day, is in the heads of drakes on the open Broad. Velvet green mallard heads, banana-beaked, bowing to dappled females already since autumn; tight flocks of wigeon, their pastel pates catching the lovely light; tiny teal crouching under the wrinkled roots of alders, piping quietly to their dusky ducks.

As night comes, a skein of pink-feet yaps above, bound for some safe stretch which the feet of foxes may not reach. Marsh harriers sway lower and lower over the reed, dropping to their night time roosts. And, as you head home tired and happy, woodcock, driven here by brutal continental cold, burst from the carr into the gathering gloom. Tomorrow the skies may cloud again, but today the sun has shone, and, among these many Broadland lives, you too have lived.

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