The feeling of spring

Primroses

Primroses

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Spring is here at last, and what a welcome thing it is. It started when I was cooped up in a hospital room for two weeks, watching the crocuses on the balcony bloom in their tubs, and the first small tortoiseshell butterfly flutter past my window. But I could not go out and enjoy it.

Coming out of hospital, the first thing I noticed was the wind on my face. Cold, for sure, but very welcome, and something that had been sorely missed.

They seemed almost imperceptible at first, the signs of Spring at the woods. It was very subtle. One week, you could see through the understorey, through the woods to the fields beyond. Then a few days later, you couldn’t. Just a few buds bursting here and there and the woods were transformed once again.

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Daffodils

Daffodils

The daffodils came out in great numbers, followed by the lesser celandine, primroses and cowslips. This last weekend the first bluebell buds appeared, the blossom was profuse on the blackthorn, and the first cherry blossom also came into flower. Snakeshead fritillary are also in flower, and the smell of wild garlic hits you before you see the emerging leaves.

Cowslips

Cowslips

Ladybird on the edge of a leaf

Ladybird on the Edge

Within a few days, tiny green leaves were all over the birch trees, like little jewels, backlit by the sun. Catkins cover the willow trees, leaf buds bursting, early bees feasting on the pollen. Comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and peacock butterflies are everywhere in the sheltered parts of the meadow. Chiffchaffs are calling. The first blackcap is in song.

Surprisingly, for most birds are still building their nests, we even have a robin feeding her young, the nest precariously perched in an empty log bag thrown onto the top shelf of our log store.

Robin Feeding Young

Robin Feeding Young

This is the feeling of spring. The wind on your face. Some warmth in the sun. Frantic bird activity, flowers on the woodland floor, and the delicate sight of new leaves and catkins. A feeling magnified by my release from captivity. A glorious feeling. A joyful time of year.

Blackthorn

Blackthorn

Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine

Comma Butterfly

Comma Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly – shame about the background but lovely butterfly all the same.

Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom

A Day with the Tree Surgeons

First tree showing weak area

The first tree showing the weak area

Yesterday, we had Mike Daniels and his team from Arborcare, come to the woods to deal with two large oaks. Both of these needed to be pollarded for safety. It was a privilege to spend the day with these lovely guys, watching them at work.

The first tree had a branch fall off leaving a large scar a few years ago. This was healing, until it was seriously eroded by hornets, leaving a very unstable situation with a heavy branch on a weak base. The other branch of the tree had a crack (not easily visible). Both branches were overhanging a path used by visitors, so something had to be done. The aim was to preserve the tree and the habitat, but make it safer.

The second tree was again, very hollow and weak, and overhanging a path. We tried moving the path but it didn’t work out, so the tree needed reducing. This second tree may not survive, but it will remain as standing dead wood and fantastic hollow habitat for birds.

None of the brash was wasted: most of the holly brash from our coppicing, together with all the brash from this pollarding work was chipped to surface our paths. The rest was left as habitat piles.

Brash chipping going on the path

Brash chipping going on the path

I am totally in awe of people who can do this wonderful work. The photos show some of the process and the skill involved.

Our thanks to Mike, Paul, and John from Arborcare, and to Keith, who turned up to help us. We were all working flat out all day – I was helping to cut up the branches cut down and stack the logs and brash, and the others were chipping the massive pile of brash and delivering it to our paths.

A wonderful day.

At work high above the ground

At work high above the ground

Removing a branch

Removing a branch

Removing the top of the tree

Removing the top of the tree

A new pollarded oak

A new pollarded oak

Climbing the adjacent tree

Climbing the sound tree next to the weak one that will be pollarded

Swinging across

Swinging across

Phew!

Phew!

Cutting more branches

Cutting more branches

Gradually cutting back

Gradually cutting back

All done, and Mike lets himself down on the rope

All done, and Mike lets himself down on the rope

Coppicing the Hedge

A huge tree casting a lot of shade

A huge tree casting a lot of shade – and it’s supposed to be a hedge!

Over the past three weekends, we have been working on a very overgrown hedge between Alvecote Wood and Betty’s Wood. In particular we have been working on several very large holly trees, about 40 feet/15 metres high. These had been cut about 30 years ago, but the hedge has not been maintained since then. In consequence these trees have grown huge, and were cutting out a lot of light on the southern boundary of the wood. Behind the trees was some poor sycamore scrub and some bramble. We tried to get hazel established here, but it was just too dark. Nothing would grow.

So this year we decided to coppice back this holly hedge, removing three enormous holly trees (some with up to eight stems each), a couple of sycamore, hazel and hawthorn to open this area up and let in light.

We have also cleared the bramble, and plan to plant this area up with some hazel, birch and cherry, and also encourage oak seedlings to grow between these trees.

The photos tell the story: before, during and after.

There are also two videos showing how Stephen felled a particularly awkward twin-stem holly.

Felling the large holly

Felling the large holly

After, hedge is coppiced and a lot of light coming in

After, hedge is coppiced and a lot of light coming in

Shows the light coming into the area

Shows the light coming into the area

Apologies that the first clip of this video is out of focus.

Helpful Robins

Robin looks like he is sitting in a bubble

Robin looks like he is sitting in a bubble

Robin on a Stick

Robin on a Stick – sitting on the cloned willow stick

Round Robin

Round Robin

Robins nearly always show up whenever you do any work in the woods. Last week I was cloning some willow. This means you cut about 18 inch/50 cm lengths of wood about 1 inch/2.5 cm diameter.  Then, making sure it is the right way up, push it into the ground about 15cm or so, put a guard around it to prevent browsing, and the vast majority of willow will re-sprout into a new tree.

I nearly didn’t take my camera.  But I was glad I did.  The little robin was waiting for me to hammer in one of the sticks, then coming down to perch on it while I went to fetch the guard from the wheelbarrow.  And when he wasn’t doing that, he was perched in the tree close by.

I managed to snap one photo of him with the light just right – he looked like he was sitting in a bubble!

 

Early Spring

Golden Tassels - Hazel Catkins

Golden Tassels – Hazel Catkins

Alder Catkins

Alder Catkins

Alder Catkins

Alder Catkins

Birch Catkins

Birch Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Golden Tassels - Hazel Catkins

Golden Tassels – Hazel Catkins

I’ve seen hazel catkins out in January before (just!), but never seen willow or alder catkins at this time of year.  Yet that is what is happening at the woods right now.  The lack of a really harsh frost this winter has led to everything being extremely early.  We have buds on our daffodils, bud burst on elder, and a load of catkins coming out, producing pollen and giving me hay-fever!

These photos were all taken last week.  Hazel, birch, alder and willow catkins coming out.  It really seems crazy.  We have had frost, but not a hard frost, and no frost under the trees themselves.  I hope we don’t get a hard and late frost to set everything back now they have started to come up.

Mystical Winter Light

Mystical Light and Frosty Path

Mystical Light and Frosty Path

As a photographer, I am always interested in light.  So it might seem strange that I love the winter, because it tends to be dark and grim, at least in the UK.  However the quality of light at this time of year can be absolutely magical.  We all know of the golden hour near sunset and sunrise, when the light is warmer and more gentle, lighting subjects from a low angle.

Angled Shadows on path

Angled Shadows

However in winter in the UK, the light is always coming from a low angle because the sun never gets very high in the sky – and while it may not have the intoxicating warmth of a summer evening, it does have a lovely gentle and watery quality that simply isn’t available at any other time of year.

frosty-walk-102

As well as a low angle and gentle watery quality, winter light is also enhanced by the cold weather bringing mist, frost and occasional snow.  The other day I was privileged to walk round the woods at just the right time of day.  There had been a very heavy overnight frost which was melting in the sunshine, adding water vapour and mist to the sense of wonder.  There was also mist rising from the ponds and canal and settling in the flood plain where the woods are situated.

Sun on the boundary

Sun on the boundary

So we have the wonderful quality and angle of the light, frost, mist and the wonderful bonus of the trees without leaves.  The form of the trees can be clearly seen at this time of year too.  In summer, all is lost in the confusion of leaves, but right now, you can see every detail, every shape.  The shadows also have much more form than in summer.  The combination of light and form is quite intoxicating.  The beauty gives me a squeezy feeling in my stomach.

Winter light in the plantation

Winter light in the plantation

I took a series of landscape shots as I walked round, trying to capture that squeezy feeling – the mystical beauty of mist, light and trees.  You don’t get the mystical winter light every day, but when you do, it can take your breath away.

Frost Mist Trees and Shadows

Frost Mist Trees and Shadows

Winter colour in the plantation

Winter colour in the plantation

Yet more amazing sunsets

Painted Sky

Painted Sky

This year seems to have been a really special one for sunsets at the woods. Following on from the unreal skies I posted a short while ago, we had another stunning and unexpected sunset just before Christmas.

Not a promising start

Not a promising start

I had actually just gone to the woods to feed the birds, and only took my little camera with me.  As I hung up the last of the feeders, I thought that the light was looking quite good, so I decided to go for a little walk.  The sunset was not that promising, and a bank of cloud was coming over, but I decided to wait a few minutes longer.  And then the sky started to turn pink and orange.

Starting to go pink

Starting to go pink

More and more colour

More and more colour

The colour started to develop until the whole sky was scarlet.  I headed down to the ponds to try and catch some reflections in the surface of the water.  I was rewarded with some great colour and photos.

Red sky

Red sky

Reflections

Reflections

The colour started to turn from orange/red to magenta, pink and purple as I walked round the bottom of Betty’s Wood and up through the meadows back towards the main woods.  Even as I arrived at the main clearing, there was still some pink in the sky, and I caught the last rays of the sun before heading home.

Getting darker

Getting darker

Pink and purple

Pink and purple

Sun setting

Sun setting

The colours were totally unreal – as if a child had some pots of bright-coloured paints and mixed them all up and threw them across the sky.  Winter is a really special time of year for sunsets.  What has been most interesting this year is that the best colour has been in the north-east, and not in the south-west where the sun is actually setting.

I hope you are not bored of seeing pictures of winter sunsets – I never tire of their beauty.

The last rays

The last rays

Unreal Skies

The Sunset Starts

The Sunset Starts

Sky on Fire!

Sky on Fire!

A few days ago, I was at the woods at sunset, when an absolutely astonishing sunset began to happen. As the sun started to go down in the south-west, as it does at this time of year, the clouds opposite, in the north-east, started to take on an amazing colour.

The Colour Starts to Build

The Colour Starts to Build

The Colour Spreads

The Colour Spreads

At Its Glorious Peak

At Its Glorious Peak

Slowly the colour began to get progressively more intense, and the colour started to change from yellow, through orange, to pink. The clouds looked like a scene from the movie “Independence Day”. Every cloud seemed to be affected and the sky looked as if it were on fire.
Every minute, the scene was changing, as it faded through shades of red and pink to darkness.
I have never seen a sky like it over the woods. It was quite incredible.

Fading to Pink

Fading to Pink

Continuing to Fade to pink

Continuing to Fade to pink

Sun Disappearing

Sun Disappearing

Last Pink Clouds

Last Pink Clouds

The last rays

The last rays opposite the entrance

Winter Wildlife Watching

Chubby Little Squirrel

Chubby Little Squirrel

Squirrel Approaching

Squirrel Approaching

Of course the birds are there all year, but you can see them much more clearly at this time of year, when the leaves have left the trees, and when they are keen to move in to our feeders for food.  This winter has been unusually mild so far, and there has been relatively little activity at our feeders, because there is still plenty of natural food around.

Robin

Robin

Nevertheless, on a sunny day in midwinter, there is nothing better than the low and slanting sunshine for spotting the little birds, and other creatures, moving in on the feeders.

Great Tit

Great Tit

Great Tit

Great Tit

At the moment we are getting a huge number of great tits and blue tits, as is usual.  But we are also getting some reed buntings, coal tits, greenfinch, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, robin and nuthatch, as well as the occasional great-spotted woodpecker.  Little mobs of long-tailed tits range along the edges of the woods and tops of trees in huge groups – eleven or more of them – finding their own food in the trees.  Underneath the feeders, any spillage is rapidly swept up by pheasants, mallard and squirrels (sadly we only have grey squirrels in this area). We are still awaiting the willow tits, which we usually see at this time of year, as well as yellowhammer.  We have heard both, but not seen them on the feeders.  Overhead, the buzzards are still active, and the kestrel is hovering along the woodland margins, looking for unwise mice and voles.

Chaffinch

Chaffinch

Chubby Little Blue-Tit

Chubby Little Blue-Tit

Occasionally there is a panic, and a sparrow hawk swoops in, or a magpie comes to try its luck.

Most of the birds seem to be able to use the feeder intuitively, but some of them just never get the hang of it – in particular one female blue tit who pecked at everything except the feeding port, and eventually resorted to finishing the spilt food on the ground.

Incapable Blue-Tit

Incapable Blue-Tit

There are also relatively few fieldfare in the trees, and I haven’t seen any redwings either this winter yet. This could all change if the weather gets colder in the new year.

It is a privilege to sit in my portable chair hide, with my camera and a flask of coffee, and watch these little birds.  I don’t really mind if they are common birds – I never tire of watching or photographing their antics.

Dunnock

Dunnock

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting

Nuthatch on Feeder

Nuthatch on Feeder

Wonderful Winter Sunsets

Pink Clouds and Glowing Trees

Sunset from the edge of our woods

Dark and glowing clouds as dusk falls

Dark and glowing clouds as dusk falls

The first frosts have been late this year, but winter seems to have arrived at last, and with it comes the wonderful, clear and low light that casts eerie shadows within the woods and across the landscape, and brings those amazing sunsets that simply don’t occur during summer.

We’ve been gifted with a few beautiful sunsets over the last few days.  The first came while we were working away cutting up, moving and stacking logs from a willow tree that had fallen into our neighbour’s field.  It was an absolutely miserable, rainy, drizzly, damp day.  But as we were walking back up from repairing the fence with some dead-hedging and stakes, the cold front finally passed, and a sunset started to happen.  I always have a camera, even if working, and I put my little EOS-M to good work along the edge of the woods, capturing the light, clouds, colours and shapes of sunset.

Yesterday, I had to take a few photos of trees on which we are planning to have tree surgery work done later during the winter.  Because our woods has a Tree Preservation Order on it, we have to submit an application for this work to the Council, supported by photos.  While I was there, I could sense the light getting better and better for photography.  First there was the sun-dog or false rainbow caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere refracting the sunlight.  Then there were the golden leaves remaining on the birch trees, backlit by the setting sun.  Finally there was the cold wait by our entrance as the sun started to set opposite.  Subtle colours, and few clouds, but spectacular none the less.  Although I guess a few passing motorists wondered why there was a mad woman shivering in a puffa jacket with a camera round her neck by the side of the road!

Low light is the real gift of winter.  It makes this time of year special.

Birch trees glow gold in Betty's Wood

Birch trees glow gold in Betty’s Wood

Sun Dog over Betty's Wood - the rainbow is not a photographic artefact

Sun Dog over Betty’s Wood – the rainbow is not a photographic artefact

Sunset over the hills opposite the woods

Sunset over the hills opposite the woods

The sun setting right opposite our entrance

The sun setting right opposite our entrance as I was leaving.