Where the stream crosses the cobbled remains of an old mill bridge, I slip through the gap between two leaning ash trees. Picking up the faintest of tracks that runs along the edge of a meandering stream, I pass the gnarly, burred oak. The oval nest hole is still visible among the ivy thrown up its trunk like fraying ropes. Last May, I watched a smart pair of great spotted woodpeckers relentlessly feeding their insatiable chick. I am sheltered from the wind in here but the canopy sways dizzyingly above me as I move deeper into the wood. My tread is muffled by the sodden brown patchwork of oak and beech leaves. To the left, the bear-like imprint of a badger paw is squashed into a patch of mud. The mere whisper of a tsee-tsee stops me in my tracks and I crane my neck upwards. Eventually I catch sight of a treecreeper; an almost indiscernible almond-shaped bird spiralling jerkily round an upper branch of oak, pausing every now and then to tweezer out insects from behind the lifted bark.
I find my usual spot and lean against the old ash. The feather-moss cushions my back and I’m comforted by its damp, peaty smell. I wait. I wait some more. I am in no hurry today. I am alone but not lonely.
I hear them before I see them: an excitable jumble of high-pitched, rolling si-si-si-sis amidst percussive pips and squeaks they use to keep in contact with one another. Long-tailed tits, the woodland acrobats, tumble from twig to branch. Blue tits and great tits accompany them, as if swept along by the restless energy of it all. They seem to move through me also, undaunted by my presence. In a flash, they are gone and the woodland falls quiet once more. With the travelling circus over, I pick my way across the stream and scramble up the muddy bank, through a tangle of alders. There is more of a bounce in my step as I join the footpath home.
© Paula Hutchings, 2021