This is all a bit embarrassing: it’s a sorry tale of indifference, bordering on neglect.
There’s a forest within about 20 minutes drive of my front door. I knew it was there, had skirted the fringes of it on any number of occasions, but never believed it was really a forest; not a proper one. From a position of pretty much total ignorance, I’d dismissed it as “more of a decent-sized wood”. Well, turns out I was wrong: it’s a proper forest all right – one of the largest remaining tracts of ancient woodland in Britain – extending to more than 26 square kilometres. I could have easily researched all of this, but – already convinced that I knew of plenty of better places to spend a day – didn’t take the trouble.
We were really only persuaded to pay a visit to the area, back in early spring, on the recommendation of an acquaintance, suggesting it as a place where we might possibly get to see – among other things – lesser spotted woodpeckers. With their small size, increasing scarcity, and penchant for living out most of the year among the dense foliage of the uppermost branches, these birds are becoming increasingly difficult to find, even more so to actually see.
As are adders, with their heightened sensitivity to vibration and inclination to slide away into the dense undergrowth long before you would ever know they were there. So we considered ourselves pretty fortunate to have clear sight of three of them within the space of a couple of visits; not to mention by far the largest grass snake either of us had ever seen. And then a tawny owl – out, and seemingly hunting, in broad daylight; possibly the consequences of a hungry brood and a disappointing return during the hours of darkness (it had been extremely wet throughout most of the night).
Although, if there had to be a vote for industry and persistence, it would probably go to the pied flycatchers: male and female, double-teaming to deliver a never-ending supply of small insects; coordinating their arrivals and departures so that the nest box was never unattended for more than a few seconds.
And the woodpecker tip turned out to be sound: we have a tendency to stick to the quieter paths and happened to be in just the right place when a small bird (no bigger than a chaffinch) broke cover and headed for the top of a dead – and therefore defoliated – tree; just far enough away to remain unfazed by our presence and close enough to be definitely identifiable through the binoculars. Sometimes a bit of luck can be the deciding factor!
If there’s a moral to any of this, it’s probably not to overlook what’s virtually on our own doorsteps. Particularly as less driving means more time to wander and explore.