Tag Archives: woodland

Life beginning and ending in the wood

It may not match the scale of the ocean of Bluebells in Blean Woods, but our very own Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park – with a little help from our conservation group – puts on a pretty impressive show every year as well. Even now they are past their best, it is still an arresting sight. The peculiar combination of Bluebells with Beech – the ‘Mother of Forests’ is a true source of wonder – the deep blue-purple of Bluebell combined with the fresh life of new green Beech leaves just… works.

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Chalet Wood, Wanstead Park

I have been spending a bit of time recently in a wood at the other end of Wanstead Park: Reservoir Wood (so called because the large man-made lake that used to be located here in the palatial grounds of Wanstead House). And I have witnessed the hope that comes from the beginnings of wild-life. A Nuthatch – a scarcely seen bird on the patch with a bill full of invertebrates; a sure sign that it has bred successfully and that somewhere close by a nest of gaping mouths awaits.

Much later at night in the same wood I heard the squeaks of new life as well. Two young Tawny Owls squeaking constantly and the occasional contact call of the mother. Nothing seen, but recorded here in a video I took.

I also heard the loud squeaks of a very different sort a couple of days before; or more accurately the squawks of death. A female Sparrowhawk startled me with how closely it swooped past me and, before I could even focus, it had a Starling upside down in her talons. The terrible screams continued for a about a minute after the hawk had taken its unfortunate prey off into the seclusion of branch and leaf. The remaining flock of Starlings circled, alarmed and useless but unwilling to leave the scene immediately as if in hope that their comrade would return to them. But, of course, that was never going to happen. The woodland brought life and death, and… maybe life again as it reminded me of when I watched fledging Sparrowhawks in the neighbouring wood back in 2015.

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The sounds of Mirkwood

“As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer.” – J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

Tonight, I ventured into a mirky wood. Not the Mirkwood of myth and Middle Earth, but my local Bush Wood. I went to listen for Tawny Owl, but heard the sound of monsters instead; not a giant spider, but something far worse.

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A Bush Wood Tawny Owl for 2017 eludes me still.

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I trod carefully through the wood tonight, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, the silver light of the moon (albeit somewhat softened by the urban glow) illuminated the paths quite well for me: hardened mud tracks glimmered softly and reassuringly; whilst darker patches warned of churned up mud; and, puddles shone clearly like warning beacons.

Even taking deeper woodland paths was easy enough and when I reached the space known as the ‘clearing’, the grass glowed.

The wood itself was silent; no owls, no birds at all except a single short alarm call from a Blackbird.

During the day, I often notice how the sounds of traffic quieten as you move deeper into the trees; wood, leaf, mud, and moss seeming to muffle the urban roar and allowing the sounds of the wood to be heard more clearly: most particularly the calls and songs of the woodland birds. But tonight, that magic of the daylight hours appeared to have worn off; even deep within the wood, the traffic sounds filled my head. Our flight paths seemed to have got lower and louder, and the bell-ringers in the local church chimed long and loud.

There was incongruity between the eerie shadows of being alone in a wood at night, and the familiar scream of the metropolis which pervaded every corner absolutely. Any fear of the unknown was drowned out by the sounds of the only-too-familiar.

Turning my camera phone to the trees, the flash-light picked out the branches like green fingers stretching out from the darkness.

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Where my eyes picked up the nuances of the woodland shadow, the camera flash replaced them with the sharp contrast of close and far; light and dark. Only very faint ghostly lines appear out of the darkness in the images, where my eyes could at least pick out a range of silhouetted shapes.

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In the dark, so much more than the day, the wood seemed to be betrayed by the artificial lights and the mechanised noise of the surrounding city.

Was it the wood that was betrayed? Or was it me and my sensibilities? I had come in search of an owl, but I had also come to embrace the peace of the wood at night. The trepidation that still exists in adulthood towards a wood at night, a fear that must have truly primeval roots felt like something ‘real’ I wanted to experience; but it was somewhat shattered by the W19 bus, the Boeing 777 from Tel Aviv to Heathrow, or the motorbike going past at double the local speed limit.

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The moment the Boeing 777 passed over my head, thanks to Flightradar24.com

I keep returning to the wood to look for ‘something’ but I clearly need to look and listen a little more deeply; to the wood and to myself.

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The ‘green glimmer’ of a street light, not Shelob’s lair

Woodland hunt

WARNING! This blog post contains images which some readers may find disturbing (due to their horrendous quality)

“If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise” is something none of the Wanstead birders said ever. Bush Wood is not my local birding colleagues’ favourite part of the Patch, largely because it doesn’t seem to be the interesting-migrant-magnet that other parts, such as ‘the Brooms’, are. However, it is recognised as being useful for patch lists due to the woodland specialist birds that can be found there.

I don’t think I am doing any of the other local birders a dis-service by stating that I have a better relationship with Bush Wood than most. I think this is for a few reasons, but two of which are: it is the closest part of the Patch to my house (alongside School Scrub) and so I feel a certain neighbourly loyalty to it; and, oak -dominated woodland is probably my favourite British habitat (rare birds or no rare birds).

As this weekend began, I was also acutely aware that my patch year list was missing several of the woodland specialist birds that draws even the most grudging Bush Wood birder to undertake a reconnoitre, namely: Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Firecrest, and Coal Tit. All four birds were missing from my list as I walked into Bush Wood rather late yesterday morning (yes, I was a bit hungover).

In case the ensuing field notes and terrible photos are too much to bear, I will cut to the chase and reveal that I ended the day with two of the four birds ticked off.

Field notes

Within a few seconds of entering the wood I heard and saw Goldcrest, but their scarcer cousins were nowhere to be found. I walked through the wood very slowly, stopping whenever I was ‘in the birds’ (I’m sure anyone who has done any woodland birding knows what I mean by that expression). Tit flocks came and went. Great Tit, Blackbird, Robin, and Wren were all out defending territories. Great Spotted Woodpecker chased each other around, at one point with four on a single tree with plenty of calls and drumming involved. There was also the odd yaffle from a Green Woodpecker, and the inescapable squawks of the dreaded Ring-necked Parakeets, but even the parakeets were outvoiced in the woodland that day. Invisble Jays filled the wood with terrible screams as they communicated with each other from within their protected bowers. But even after some time of searching, I had not encountered any of my target species.

I walked to the North East corner of the wood, past the thick twisted girths of the ancient planted Sweet Chestnuts. The area around the keeper’s lodge is, I have found, one of the best places to encounter Coal Tit on the Patch. But it seemed only Blue Tit were to be found darting from oak, through holly, to oak.

At this point a couple jogging emerged – old friends of mine it transpired, so we stopped to talk (or rather they stopped to talk with me – I was already stationary). A little while into our chat, I tried not to appear distracted as a thin and sharp bird call pierced through leaves and pierced through my consciousness. It was the song of the Coal Tit. After my friends jogged on, I peered through holly and eventually caught sight of my quarry:

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Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Even in the poor quality photo above, the greenish back of our ‘britannicus‘ subspecies is distinctive.

And so I left Bush Wood with only one of my target species ticked off after about one hundred minutes of hard searching. But, I did not leave woodland; I merely crossed the bisecting road into Reservoir Wood (so named because it was once the location of a man-made lake on the grounds of the demolished Wanstead House, called the ‘Reservoir’)

A group of young film-makers in hi-vis jackets were working in the wood making a distraction for dog-walkers and a birder alike. But there was another hi-vis sight I wanted, and soon got. squinting up at the bare tree-tops a couple of Goldcrest moved around, but there was another similar-sized bird that seemed to be behaving slightly differently. I can’t quite put my finger on the difference, but as it dropped down a little in altitude, the green complemented by those wonderful face markings became, momentarily visible: my first Firecrest for the year, and my first ever in Reservoir Wood came into view. I include the dreadful shot – high bird against blanched sky – below as a reminder, if not a celebration, of the snatched glances of the wonderful feathered jewels that we must normally accept as our experience of a Firecrest.

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Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus)

Eventually emerging from the wood, the great dome of sky opened up and seemed to be filled with the voice of a single soprano. Perched at the very top of an exposed tree next to Shoulder of Mutton pond was the relatively unusual patch sight of the Storm Cock in full song; our few Mistle Thrush do not seem – to my mind anyway – to sing as often as one might expect.

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Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

My search for Nuthatch and Treecreeper continues.

A map of trees

I thought we should take a break from birding, but I wanted to take you back to Bush Wood on my ‘patch’ for a different journey.

The science of studying and making maps, Cartography, is both ancient and noble. It can be a science and/or an art. What I lack in both scientific knowledge and artistic technique, I make up for in enthusiasm. As I paced up and down the confusing set of woodland paths, I started to sketch a map in my notebook. I have since ironed out the more intricate kinks and bends and plumped for a simplistic depiction of where the paths lie projected on to a Google satellite image of Bush Wood. Duh daaa…

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

OK. It is a pretty slap-dash job, but I would welcome anyone who can show me a better map of the paths of Bush Wood – the lines shown on an Ordinance Survey map seem to bear no relation whatsoever to the actual footpaths (and no, I wasn’t just reading it upside down!).

Bush Wood is not the most diverse woodland you will have encountered and is mainly dominated by Oak, Hornbeam, Hawthorn, and Holly (the last two of which, along with an enormous quantity of bramble, makes much of Bush Wood – off the beaten tracks – virtually impenetrable). These plants have been expertly documented by Paul Ferris in his survey of the area.

Walking, or – more accurately at the moment given the amount of water – squelching around the paths is a little confusing, but the markers that help provide bearings – for me at least – are some of the more notable trees.

Please note all the following photos were taken on my iPhone as I was too paranoid I might happen upon an interesting bird, I refused to take my zoom lens off my camera.

Some of the trees are so distinctive looking in shapes that they are readily remembered such as this hornbeam:

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Or this oak with the preposterously long lower branch:

At least I think it is oak - I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

At least I think it is oak – I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

Here is another shot of the same tree(s) but – just to show what a health and safety rebel / idiot (delete as appropriate) I am – with me standing underneath that preposterously long branch:

Oak

Or how about this for an interestingly shaped tree?

Tree

The biggest trees in Bush Wood are not oak or hornbeam, but a small number of Sweet Chestnut. And the biggest of all – a tree that is at least 300 years old – is a well hidden ancient giant known as the witch’s tree:

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Unfortunately, my iPhone does not give a sense of scale, but it really is a bruiser of a tree. Even its fallen leaves are big:

Sweet Chestnut

You also can’t see the extent to which the roots are exposed at the bottom. If you are wondering why it is called the witch’s tree, choose whichever of the following explanations you prefer:

1) Around 400 years ago a woman was accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. In the writhing agony of death she was seen to scream out an incomprehensible curse. A great tree grew from a seed on the spot where she died. It had a complex set of exposed roots that were twisted and contorted like burnt limbs. The gaps are easily wide enough for a child, or even a reasonable-sized adult to crawl through. But, those carefree fools who crawl between the roots/limbs of the witch’s tree invariably fall sick, and some die. A coincidence perhaps, poisonous soil perchance, or maybe it is the manifestation of a doomed woman’s curse?

2) As the summer solstice sun sets, they say that young witches dance naked around this hidden tree. Some say that at the right time of year, the tree imparts vitality and extended youth into those who properly worship its wild antiquity.

3) I don’t know why it is called that. Sorry!

Before I get carried away with tales of magic, I wanted to re-post my map, but this time with four of the interesting trees plotted and marked, maybe to help you one day find the witch’s tree and its fellows:

Bush Wood tree map

A Big British Birding Year: Part II

My journey to photograph as many species of British birds in one year as possible took me to ancient London woodland yesterday.

Queen's Wood

Queen’s Wood in Haringey is small – around 52 acres – but important. It is a recognised wildlife hotspot in the capital and contains rare species of tree (I shall perhaps return in warmer months and write more about these) and insect as well as supporting large numbers of birds.

Queen’s Wood is a fragment from a much larger wood that used to cover much of Northern London and Essex and it may be directly descended from the truly ancient Wildwood that covered most of Britain following the last Ice Age.

It is allowed to grow in a relatively unrestricted manner, although there is some tending using some surprisingly traditional methods to carry the logs:

Horse

But, I went to photograph birds. I was pleased to add four new species to my 2014 list:

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

… and finally, I photographed one of the three species of Woodpecker known to reside in the Wood (the same bird is pictured twice below, amalgamated to show different aspects, as it was always partially obscured – an occupational hazard when photographing birds in woods):

Great-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Great-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

There were other birds there that are already on my list from last weekend including an exceptionally tame Robin:

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

… and, lastly, I couldn’t resist this shot of a Grey Squirrel:

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

After two weekends into the year, my total stands at 31.

A stroll in the Chilterns

There is a grand union between the UK’s two largest cities, London and Birmingham. It is a canal that is named after its purpose. The Grand Union is the longest waterway in the UK, some 70 miles longer than the River Thames.

Grand Union

The Grand Union cuts through a low point in the Chiltern Hills at Tring, about an hour north of London in the Hertfordshire countryside.

We got off the train at Tring and did a circular walk for a few miles. Starting by walking down by the canal…

abandoned boat

… and then breaking off the tow-path at bridge 137, a two hundred year old structure concreted and strengthened just before the First World War…

Bridge 137 and Lily

Before we left the canal, we walked along to the sound of Spring birdsong, from Warblers like the onamatopeic Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), so difficult to distinguish from the Willow Warbler by sight, but so easy by sound…

Chiff Chaff

… and its cousin, the Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) a summer migrant from sub-Saharan African that I spotted singing on the other side of the canal…

Whitethroat

There was also plenty of noise from Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Great Tits, Jays, and, one more I did manage to capture, the ubiquitous Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)…

Chaffinch

One Swallow does not a summer make according to Aristotle, but two?… (Hirundo rustica)…

Swallow

From the canal there is a steep walk up into the Chilterns. The hills are a chalk escarpment formed at a similar time to the Alps (and a number of other mountain ranges) when Africa collided with Eurasia, buckling so many of the geological formations to the north.

Carpeting the top of much of the Chilterns is protected woodland where the trees wear jackets of moss to display their age…

Mossy tree

… or badges of fungi where their branches have been wounded or breached (I’m hoping my attempt at poetic language will mask the fact that I cannot identify the species of fungi)…

Fungi

We found the raided husk of a Song Thrush egg…

Song Thrush egg

… alongside the matching Forget-me-nots…

Forget-me-not

… And then the trees open to the largest pasture land in the Chilterns, Northchurch Common…

Northchurch Common

… before a steep walk back down the other side of the escarpment into the picturesque village of Aldbury …

Aldbury

Note how the signpost on the village green actually points back to the pub, the Valiant Trooper, which I thought was exquisitely named following our walk on a warm spring day. I didn’t need another sign, and so the walk ended – as all good walks should – with a pint of locally brewed ale enjoyed in the sun…

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I can heartily recommend the beer, Ridgeway Bitter, named after the very paths that we had walked across less than an hour before enjoying the ale