Tawny Clark spots something wonderful on a woodland wander
Winter is coming. The frost has arrived. Infinite specs of reflected sunshine embellish the world with sequins fit for the ballroom.
After school drop off, I take the scenic route home through the woods. It’s not the ancient oak forest that stirs my soul and brings tears to my heart, but it’s pleasant enough for a morning amble.
As wet woodland, it’s predominated by willow scrub that can tolerate seasonal waterlogging and survive the nutrient-depleted soil which surrounds a flooded pit – a clue to the area’s industrial past. There’s little sign of life in the darkly opaque, oil-sheened water, aside from an occasional pond-skater.
A vast spoil tip still looms over the valley; disguised in summer by the sunny, joyous heads of oxeye daisy, but an ever-present reminder of a revolution which fundamentally altered our relationship with nature. Although it lacks antique oaks or ethereal beeches, this woodland does show what nature can achieve given time.
Birds seem not to mind it here. There are usually blackbirds squabbling among the leaf litter. Blue tits, great tits, pigeons. Another species too has made a home for itself.
One particular tree beside the path shows clear signs of this industrious avian resident. Its upright, dead trunk is pock-marked with perfectly round, golf ball sized holes. With no apparent preference for orientation or height, perhaps it depends more on the softest spots of wood?
The Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) has, to date, been my favourite wildlife encounter in this woodland. Sometimes I hear it tapping in the distance or catch a fleeting glimpse as it flies between the trees. It always makes me smile.
Preoccupied on a family outing one weekend in spring, we walked straight past the nesting tree. Annoyed at missing it, I retraced my steps – knowing it’d bother me all day if I didn’t spend a few minutes in peaceful observation.
Approaching the distinctive trunk with eyes raised, and expectations low, I was taken rather off-guard by the sight that greeted me. High up the trunk, beside one of the many holes, there it was, a magnificent Great spotted woodpecker. In a matter of seconds, it took flight; but it had certainly been a return trip worth making. Now, I never walk past that tree without eagle eyes.
Today, instead, I’ve turned down the valley away from the nesting tree. The usually muddy ground is firm beneath my boots as I step down through the sunken holloway to the valley floor. With the glorious sunshine this morning, the frost is already melting from the canopy and dripping to the ground like plump, irregular raindrops. Their impact creates a pleasant tapping which becomes the soundtrack to my stroll. There’s little else making a sound here on this chilly morning.
A holly has lost several leaves and their deep waxy green spikes lay in contrast to the deciduous autumnal leaves which have by now muted from their fiery vibrancy into a uniform muddy brown.
Shafts of rising sun pierce the empty tree branches and hit the frost which clings to the chill in the shaded valley. Nettles glisten with fleeting diamonds. To me this display is more valuable, more captivating, than any jeweller’s window. Every tiny hair on each leaf is emblazoned with glitter, its crimped edges shimmer with granulated sugar.
We humans imitate, but nature alone has the skill and craftsmanship to make something this perfect.
As I peaceably breathe in this temporary beauty, I feel a growing awareness of the melting canopy. My ears have picked up some change in the background noise as I’ve silently stooped, contemplating the wonder of frost-laden nettles.
Amid the crashing droplets there’s a regular tap tap tap. It’s directly in front of me. In a tree only five or six metres away. It’s gentle and if I hadn’t stopped for some other purpose, I’d never have picked it out from the irregular drips of water.
My eyes dart upwards but my head, along with the rest of my body shifts upwards with imperceptible slowness. It’s almost impossible not to laugh aloud as my eyes follow the noise and I catch the unmistakable black and white body of the woodpecker, partially hidden beneath dense tendrils of ivy.
Smaller than the nesting adult I’d seen previously, I wonder if it could be the rarer Lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor), but I make out a red patch on its bottom when it hops further up the tree, before flying away. It’s in the shade and I don’t have binoculars or a clear view, so I can’t be certain, but it’s likely a juvenile Great spotted woodpecker. Something I didn’t expect, but am most definitely delighted, to see today.
It’s not an indisputable rule, but I find when it comes to nature, the more prepared I am to find something, the less I see. It’s often on these random ‘stumblings’, when my mind is otherwise occupied, where nature usually reminds me just how extraordinary and unpredictable it truly is.
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