Friday, 6 February 2009

Winter Woods I: The Sparrow Hawk stump

Contrary to TS Elliot’s opinion it is February that is the cruellest month. On Sunday 1st of February I found myself with one of those rare free days when neither wife, children or the tyranny of the recording studio had prior claim on my time so I decided to spend a day in the woods. As I set off under layers of merino, cashmere and gor-tex the sky was a boiling mass of iron grey clouds shooting sporadic blizzards of perfectly spherical hail-stones towards the cold earth. I walked quickly, eager to get deep into the woods, away from the dog walkers who skirted the fringes and the horse-riders churning up the paths into deep muddy pools. As I neared the bend in the stream where the first game trail crossed the path I struck off into the bush, ducking beneath branches and jumping over ghylls until I forded the stream on rocks succulent with liverwort and climbed the opposite bank into the deep conifers, away from the well used paths and away from people. Here in the still winter woods the temperature was slightly higher than outside, the quiet deeper and more permanent. The game trail I was following was thick with the slots of roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), and I had seen many animals in this part of the woods before. I looked about and began to walk slowly and carefully down the trail but even my quietest and most deliberate movements were not enough and sticks cracked beneath my heavy boots. Realising that silent stalking was not going to be a rewarding experience on such a cold day in this part of the woods I started to move faster but still trying to make as little noise as possible. I came across several scrapes in the loam where deer had attempted to uncover shoots and bulbs and further on, on top of the mossy remains of a large stump at the apex of an elevated bank above a small stream I came across the remains of a dead bird. At first I thought this was a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) kill, given the flight feathers scattered about the stump but looking closer it became clear that although the position on the landscape – a stump on a raised area – was a classic fox location the flight feathers had been plucked rather than snapped from the wing. I gathered several together, long black feathers that looked to be from a Jackdaw, and wondered what fox, no matter how sly, could have caught a jackdaw in a wood and plucked the feathers with such surgical precision. This was a Sparrow Hawk (Accipiter nisus) kill but the feathers were all within a 9 inch area on the top of the stump; looking up there was no obvious perch the bird could have used to pluck it’s prey and had it done so the feathers would surely have drifted across a wider area. Maybe the bird felt sufficiently safe, here in the deep emerald moss of the heart of the wood to sit at ground level and eat in peace.
Top: I forded the stream on rocks succulent with liverwort
Middle: plucked the feathers with such surgical precision
Bottom: the feathers were all within a 9 inch area on top of the stump

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