Ashdown Forest in February

The view at dawn from the high ridge near Gills Lap looks down over Eeyore’s gloomy place to rivers of mist that fill the Wealden clay valleys below. The land is quiet in February; a cock pheasant runs whilst crouching across the track muddied by winter clearance of swathes of old, leggy gorse.

The gorse and heather are empty of birds except for a solitary robin and occasional wren, then a pair of marsh tits flies past; these woodland birds must have left to forage within or commute across the heath. A hen sparrowhawk hunts the valley and will possibly breed in the thin spine of woodland that traces the path of the stream.

The morning sun breaks the cloud, lights the gorse flowers and enlivens the heather and pines. Dartford warblers churr and sing their short stutter, sometimes appearing briefly on a sprig of gorse before diving back down only to appear somewhere else.  These little, long-tailed birds prefer the mosaics of thick heather bursting with young gorse.

In the distance, the fluting calls of a singing woodlark, sitting high on a bare beech tree, floats up the valley in the still air and warm sun.  The male flies and escorts a female to a patch of bare ground around a newly dug pond near the edge of the woodland and here they pick their way slowly across the stones.  The male singing all the while and the female staying close and regularly cocking her crest in an upright pose. Woodlarks prefer bare ground so active management of the heath and even an occasional fire always benefits them; they are mottled brown and designed to disappear into the sandstone and scorched grass and would be entirely overlooked but for their uplifting, spring song.

A small herd of fallow deer feed on the woodland edge but run into the bare woodland on approach.  Down the muddy path and in the long-forgotten, coppice of slender birch with great oak and beech standards, woodpeckers drum on the dead upper branches, stock doves pairs wheeze and then scatter with a clatter from their nest holes.  A mistle thrush sings from one side and a song thrush another. Robins and chaffinches add to the emerging February chorus.  From deep within the woodland, a goshawk calls and the pair are again on their territory. Great tits give their far-carrying ‘bicycle pump’ call and chase each other in territorial disputes. Blue tits call from higher in the bare trees. The woodland is bright in the February sun and full of song. A red admiral butterfly, having survived the long winter in some hidden cleft, flies up to warm itself high on a holly tree.

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