With all the dolphin excitement recently, I’ve been sticking closely to the shore on my walks and neglecting the forest. I’ve always been worried that I’ll walk for miles and then get an alert saying there are leaping whales in the complete opposite direction.
But, the other day I decided to take a chance and walk the dog in the forest for a change. Within five minutes, I saw a flash of rosy red and my heart did the familiar jolt that happens whenever I see something unexpected. And this was certainly unexpected: a pair of bullfinches not twenty feet away from me.
I’ve been trying to get a decent photo of a bullfinch for years. They’re one of my favourite birds but I’ve only seen them a handful of times. On every occasion they’ve either kept their backs to me or been concealed behind branches. I’ve taken a few blurry shots that prove they were there, but they’ve never been good enough to post. Now I was being treated with both male and female. While the male is more conventionally striking, I find the dusty brown plumage of the female just as beautiful. I just love their short, stubby bills, which are perfect for cracking hard seeds.
During the entire encounter my dog was amusing herself elsewhere, completely indifferent to my excitement. I stayed with the bullfinches as they hopped around logs and fluttered up to low branches. I could have sat and watched them for hours, but after a while I left them in peace.
Still buzzing from my sighting later that day, I decided to go back to the forest for an evening walk. There would be fewer humans and hopefully more animals to see. Roe deer were another of my favourites and a few weeks ago I saw a flash of brown fur as a doe pelted past me. I was keen to get a good photo of one – they were another animal that I’d never managed to get a proper glimpse of. So, despite the warm evening I wrapped up and headed out again. The sun wouldn’t be setting until 10pm so I had plenty of daylight left. In fact, it was prime golden hour and the broom – a shrub similar to gorse but without the spines – was glittering.
It seemed I hadn’t run out of good luck. After walking for less five minutes I saw movement through the trees. Four of the skinny saplings weren’t trees at all but slender brown legs. I froze where I was, conscious of every snappable twig by my feet. She was moving slowly, leisurely. I dared myself to tread up a grassy mound for a slightly higher viewpoint. There was so much dense ground foliage that I couldn’t see her very well. She headed to my left, straight towards a clearing between two columns of trees where I’d be able to see her perfectly. I lifted my camera slowly to my face and waited. When the moment came, the click of the first photo caught her attention and she turned to face me. For about ten seconds we stared at one another. Her pricked ears were huge satellite dishes on an otherwise skinny face, punctuated by large eyes and the characteristic roe moustache. The light was fading and I stretched to a slightly higher ISO than I would have liked. I knew the images were going to be a little grainy, but my deer was posing magnificently.
Eventually, human voices cut through my moment (of all the 1700 acres they could have chosen!) and the deer darted back the way she’d come. With such a slow shutter speed I had no hope of capturing her at that pace, so I just watched her springy legs disappear into the trees.
Inspired by such an early sighting, I pressed deeper into the woods, keeping my ears open for any unusual sounds that I wouldn’t hear during the day. The fantastical idea of pine martens popped into my mind but I pushed it away. To see a wild pine marten on my first evening forest walk would something close to miraculous. But a fox or perhaps an owl might be more likely, so I stayed as quiet as I could and did my best to avoid noisy leaf litter, although my stealth skills left a lot to be desired.
It’s astonishing how soothing a forest can be, if you let yourself align to its peace and quiet. I regularly stopped to listen to the birds, which at 9pm were still going strong. Far off, a blackbird perched on an overhead wire. If I closed my eyes, I could easily have been sat on my garden porch in Hertfordshire. A blackbird used to sing in the holly tree every evening without fail, and the sound became a firm part of my childhood. Elsewhere in the forest tonight was a chaffinch’s downward running tune, a wren’s bolstering trill and a chiffchaff whistling its name. I took recordings on my phone of all the assembled voices.
I walked and sat in the forest for three hours, until eventually at 10:15pm I began to feel the chill. Even so, the light was close to what it had been when I arrived, just without the bright sun – everything was lit with a milky glow that carried on long into the night. Moray is situated on the same latitude line as Gothenburgh in Sweden so during the summer months, the days last much longer and nothing goes completely dark. It’s a phenomenon I haven’t gotten used to yet. Many nights recently I’ve gone to bed and it’s still been light outside.
I decided to call it a night. Looping back the way I’d come, I headed down the straight track that was lined on both sides by thick clouds of broom. I glanced briefly through a gap in the foliage and saw a face. Freezing, I stepped slowly back and came eye to eye with a male roe deer. My fingers itched for my camera, but there was no real chance of getting a photo. I could barely make him out with the naked eye. Most of his body was shrouded in shadows cast by the trees, but his face and antlers were dimly lit enough to spot. Again, we stood eyeing each other for a few moments before he took off, bounding down the ditch and up again. Then a sharp, gruff bark broke through the trees, which I realised was the deer! I’d never heard their barks before and couldn’t believe how canine they sounded. I wondered now if perhaps I had heard it and just dismissed it as a dog. It was haunting, especially in an ever darkening forest, but I loved it.
When I broke out of the trees and onto the open field, the spell broke. I felt a physical difference between the forest and civilisation. For hours I’d immersed myself in a place where people weren’t the most abundant presence and it was unbelievably refreshing. I decided, during the summer at least, to make my evening forays a regular thing. Daytime walks are good – I’d seen my bullfinches that morning after all – but there’s something far more mysterious and captivating about the night.