Early Spring Days

At the bottom of the slope in Hilly Wood, the cyclamen-flowered daffodils are specks of mustard yellow above avocado green leaves; the carpet spreads between the bare, silver birch coppice under a dull pearl sky. Below, the streamside alders are knobbly, like varicosed legs, and two trunks enjoy a prolonged, puckered kiss.

In the pale sunshine at Bough Beech, a male chaffinch throws his head back and shouts his simple promise; blue tits sing their high-pitched version too; a single fieldfare, soon to migrate back to Scandinavia, forages silently amongst the leaf litter alongside blackbirds and an occasional great tit.

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Thinned birch coppice in Hilly Wood

By the bird feeders, pairs of mating toads emerge, one unlucky coupling rolls down a compost heap into the soft grass, rights itself as readily as a lifeboat and presses on; all head unerringly for the pond. Other males try and usurp the riding male but are brushed aside. A small, male grass snake is out too, lost on an unforgiving concrete patio. A male sparrowhawk swerves between the feeders just above the grass, the feeding birds shout their searing warnings and scatter; the sparrowhawk gains height, looks back and circles and soon comes in for another low-level attack.

At Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve the woodpeckers are calling and drumming in the tall, lakeside willows. Most are great spotted woodpeckers; a pair drum in turn, one answering the other. A bird in the distance gives a higher-pitched, thinner call and is perhaps a lesser spotted woodpecker. As its name suggests, this is a small woodpecker species that is now rare in England’s broadleaved and wet woodlands. Green woodpeckers laugh and the spring songs of robins, dunnocks and song thrushes all fail to lift the flat, monochrome light of a foggy morning.

On the water, great crested grebes chunter loudly and either pair up in an elegant, ritualised dance or rudely chase one another from a valued territory. A grey heron’s nest is newly refurbished and is tenanted by a bird that sits as tight as heronly possible, and keeps a constant eye over the tangled brim.

The temperature is 17 degrees and the sky is high and blue; an adder is caught out on the edge of a path on Ashdown Forest. Woodlarks sing their fluting song and loop across the blue sky. Bright red, redpolls sing from clumps of tall birch trees but Dartford warblers are silent under the sun.

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Open heath on Ashdown Forest

In a nearby mixed woodland, a marsh tit calls amongst a flock of blues and greats. A buzzard mews high above the trees. Honey bees have a nest in a hole in an ancient beech tree; and a handful of bees hover at the entrance and emit a quiet hum. A red admiral lands in a patch of sun on the bare woodland floor, circles and returns when disturbed and finally gives up the game as the sun drifts behind a cloud. A goshawk shouts a harsh ‘kek kek kek’ that rings through the silent woods, and after a while calls again and again, but even though the sound is easy to track there is no sighting, just tall firs and pines lit by the late afternoon sun above a small stream, lined with hard ferns. Fallow deer bolt when disturbed, blackbirds and a jay scold and disappear, woodpigeons fly fast across the sky and there is cold menace in the warm, spring air.

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