Golden Hour

The light was still faint as I drove through fields of green. Cars tore past in a work-fuelled rush, while I cruised leisurely in the opposite direction. My focus was on the forest today – my only objective to walk through trees and listen to wild sounds.

A flash of copper caught my eye and a stunning red kite appeared in the sky, wheeling over the rolling hill as it hunted for unsuspecting mice. I pulled over in a layby – the mud sticky before the sun reached it – and spotted three more circling in large, overlapping loops. Occasionally there was a squabble, and two birds would tussle in the air, cascading downwards and surging back up. It was easy to forget that bounty hunters and egg collectors almost pushed the red kite to extinction only a few decades ago. Now, you could drive down most country roads in Hertfordshire and see at least one. I had never seen four so closely together, and savoured the opportunity to watch such an inspiring conservation success story in the flesh.

Soon the kites drifted further off, reduced to dark flecks in the sky. I left them to their hunt and drove on, arriving at the edge of the forest before anyone else that day. As lovely as dogs were, I didn’t need their boisterous presence this morning. I pulled on hat and gloves and slung camera and binoculars around my neck, then crossed the road towards the woods.

To my delight, the species I’d come to see was already here in abundance. Grazing in a field beside the cows was a herd of fallow deer around seventy-strong. I have always been fascinated by the variation in fallow deer pelts. When I first saw deer at this site, having previously seen photos of white-spotted Bambis, I had thought they were a different species altogether. These fallows were two-tone; dark brown on the top half and a lighter brown on the bottom half, as if they had waded flank-deep in mud. I hastily took to the cover of the trees, creeping as quietly as I could along the fence to get a closer look.

However, these deer were no fools. The next time I stopped and snuck a look through the binoculars, there were several faces turned my way, ears pricked upwards and eyes gazing down the lenses. My cover was blown. I decided to carry on with my approach, heading diagonally and pausing behind each tree. Ears twitched, and after a few more moments of studying me, the herd moved off, first at a trot then at a gentle canter. Among so many deer, there were only two males; as the herd bounded in loose procession across the field I watched two sets of antlers bobbing among dozens of ears.

I continued deeper into the forest, dulling the sound of passing cars with birdsong and wind-rustled leaves. The trees were gently swaying, creaking eerily like squeaky doors. The breeze played tricks on me, sending leaves skittering across my path in a perfect imitation of birds. The thrum of a woodpecker echoed through the cold air. A buzzard called faintly in the distance.

Suddenly there was an invasion of grey squirrels, bounding over the leaf litter and across fallen logs. Two of them darted in a reverse helter-skelter up a thick trunk, their claws scratching wildly in the chase. Another was saving his energy, choosing instead to perch and chew on a shrivelled leaf, twisting and turning it in his tiny hands.

I left the squirrels to their play and headed further along the fence, glancing between the trees to see if the deer might have come back. They hadn’t, but there was a sprinkling of brown birds foraging in the grass, dotted among the cows. For a few moments I couldn’t figure out what they were. Speckled like thrushes, but I’d never seen a large group of thrushes before. Just then the sun appeared, illuminating bright red patches on the birds’ sides. Redwings! My first this winter, and what a show. There were around forty of them, hopping around in the grass. They were too far away for a decent photo, but close enough to watch through the binoculars.

After a while, a startling screech made me jump. The only culprit I could think of was a barn owl, but I was sure they would have finished their night’s hunt by now. I followed the voice further down the trail. It was an ungainly, dinosaur-like squawk that sounded deafening in the tranquil forest. Suddenly, as I was scanning the canopy overhead, a crow-sized bird with white, brown and grey feathers shot out of the leafy cover. I hadn’t seen a jay once when I’d lived in Cumbria, so it had been about four years since my last sighting. I was desperate for a good photo of a jay but this one wouldn’t be cooperating. It darted from tree to tree, pausing only for a few hoarse shrieks before taking to the air again, soon disappearing completely from view. Undoubtedly the prettiest of the corvids, but not the sweetest singer.

Soon the forest was nearly silent again, with just the gusts of wind disturbing the trees. The morning was rolling on, and golden hour had arrived. Between breaks in the cloud, rich yellow light illuminated the trunks, throwing their gnarled, twisted bark into stark relief. It was a glimpse of magic that only lasted until a cloud muffled the sunlight and the forest fell back into shadow.

The cold was beginning to bite my fingertips, and I could already hear the first dog walkers. It was a good time to turn back. I made my way slowly through the woods, past the field and the squirrel tree, looking forward to warming up back home. I was just scanning the trees one last time for any small birds when my eye caught on two more pairs of ears sticking up. The deer were perfectly camouflaged, and after we stood watching each other for a few more moments, the doe stepped out from her hiding place and began picking her way through the foliage. The buck took one more look at me before following her, just as the sun emerged again and made their brown fur shine gold.

There was something undeniably magical about watching deer in a forest. They were elegant and beautiful animals, their habitat just as serene. As I stood watching them stride away out of sight, I felt a strong connection to the forest and the creatures that lived within it. Although I didn’t truly belong here, for just a few short hours I felt at home.

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