It goes without saying that I had an incredible time in Norway. I love being by the sea – it’s part of the reason why I moved to the Moray coast. Although, I also have a strong love for forests, and during the first few months in my new home I found myself drawn away from the coast and towards the sprawling Scots pines. I walk the dog along tangled trails and she amuses herself with sticks while I gaze up into the trees, camera slung on my back. It’s not that I’ve lost touch with the ocean, but I lose all awareness of time in the forest and wander for hours until eventual hunger pulls me back. Trees and the creatures they shelter provide endless fascination to me – I become immersed in the forest in a way that I can’t by the sea without the hassle and expense of scuba diving.
So although humpback whales erupting out of the water and orcas cruising alongside the boat were encounters that I will never forget – and there was a tangible feeling of sadness among the group as we made our way back to the UK – I can’t deny that I sat quietly containing my excitement. I couldn’t wait to see how the forest had changed while I’d been away and how wintery it had become.
It took us two days to drive from Gatwick airport all the way back home and I watched with growing eagerness as barren fields blended into mountains. Unfortunately I was bogged down with deadlines for the first few days, but at the weekend I made time for my first forest walk in a month. I roamed for three hours, and was reminded yet again how nature can constantly surprise you.
The first bird I saw was a goldcrest, which was flicking to and fro through the undergrowth just out of sight. I crept forwards until a particularly irksome branch had shifted and I got a clear view, but I knew getting a photo would be next to impossible. Not only do goldcrests love staying concealed, but they also never stop fidgeting. I stood still and turned on my camera, realising my settings were still adjusted for the northern lights from earlier in the week.
The goldcrest leapt up and clung to a twig with its back to me – just enough light for a photo. I pressed the shutter, hoping it would turn and show me its face and crest, but naturally it bombed back into the shadows. I left it to its foraging and pressed deeper into the trees.
Sunset was at 3:30pm and at 1pm the light was already vibrant with gold, hitting the trunks low in diagonal shards. It was blinding in some places and almost dark in others. I heard the delicate bell’s chime of another goldcrest high above me and saw the bulkier bodies of their regular companions, the coal tits. To think I’d been watching willow tits in snowy Norway a few weeks before!
I hiked up one of the many sloping hills – mountains in miniature – and admired the view from the top. My breath tumbled upwards in a white cloud turned gold in the light. After following a narrow column for a few metres it was time to slide back down to ground level and my eye caught on a treecreeper as it crept up the trunk. What a perfectly named bird.
Up ahead was a clearing, which was especially lovely in the spring when full of yellow gorse but rarely revealed anything of real interest. The birds stuck to the protection of the trees. I stopped to push numb fingers into gloves when behind me I heard a sound like a plane engine at scarily close range. Startled, I spun round and saw a brown bird come rattling around my head and land with a crash on the ground.
Without a second thought I lifted my camera and just as I pressed the shutter the bird lifted its wedge tail and took to the air again, disappearing immediately. I quickly checked my photo and was relieved to see I’d caught it. A barred head, mottled brown plumage and wings that made a sound like something caught in a fan. My first woodcock!
I was stunned, barely believing what had just stormed in front of me and barrelled away again almost within the blink of an eye. The epitome of “right place right time”. Even the goldcrests and coal tits had suddenly gone quiet, as if equally surprised at the encounter. I felt the familiar flutter of excitement in my chest and was hooked all over again. It was good to be home.