Rich, green, moss covers the ground and the feet of the tall, dark, Norway spruces. Bright yellow beams of sunlight start to spread between the trunks.
The thin, high-pitched, calls and songs of goldcrests trickle down from the canopy above. One hovers and feeds among the branches near my head, completely ignoring my presence.
I look closely at the busy little bird, with its yellow and black striped head, and round, black, eyes surrounded by the pale eye-rings that always make these birds look surprised.
John “Jock” Walpole-Bond, the Sussex birdwatcher, egg collector and author, who lived from 1878 to 1958, called the goldcrest a feathered atom.
Watching the ball of green and buff, its tiny body flickering with energy, it’s easy to see what he meant. At home among the conifers, these birds are often seen roaming in the winter with tit flocks, but here there are only goldcrests, dozens of them, all hurriedly flitting from branch to branch, repeating their pretty, tinkling, songs and seep calls.Advertisement
And then I hear another, similarly high-pitched, song. But instead of the short, multi-note phrase ending in a flourish, this one features a single repeated note, with a quickening staccato. I look up to see another goldcrest-sized bird among the branches, lit by a beam of sunlight.
This one is the rarer firecrest, instantly distinguishable from the goldcrest by its bright white eyebrow stripes. This male also has a slight flash of orange in its crest and soft dabs of orange on its shoulders. It, too, hovers among the branches, picking spiders and insects from webs. Between its flights it lands and sings again.
I walk up the hill into a clearing and wait for my eyes to adjust to the brilliant sunshine. In spite of the sun the wind is cold and harsh. A loud, long, woo-hoo-oo-oooo echoes from somewhere deep in the woods. The male tawny owls are setting out their territories. A few moments later I hear another owl, but much closer this time. I peer into the gloom of the dense forest but I cannot see it.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 20 Feb 2015.