Back To The Woods


It’s been mid-March since I posted an update. Did you miss me? I’ve been wondering if the woods have. When I last left them in July 2011, I’d just reached the end of three and a half months of walking, navigating, watching, listening, digging and unearthing. Please, read all about it! I say left – I’ve sort of stuck my head in a few times since, on the trail of a tick or two, or for a nice wander. But I missed the full immersion of a long field season in and around the woods. So I was thrilled to be offered the chance to become gainfully employed doing something quite similar this spring. After the usual and necessary paperwork and inductions, I got right back out there – explaining my temporary leave of absence from blogging.  Even more happily, the weather certainly laid on quite a welcome for the start of the season. I’m sure my British resident readers* have noticed that spring arrived with something of a bang: very little in the way of preparation, simply flipping from thick heavy snowfall on March 4th (I have the video to prove it) to blazing sunshine barely a week later.**

Aside from being exceptionally clement, the warm and sunny weather tempted some remarkably attractive insects to emerge: clouds of bee flies, each wielding a preposterous proboscis; raggedy commas resting and camouflaged against last year’s leaves, this year’s first (and only so far) male orange tip, immaculate in the afternoon sun along a woodland ride. Bee-diversity caught my eye for perhaps the first time, from the popular busy bumblers to the less well-known solitary bees. I didn’t have to leave the house, even, to see something new: the leafhopper photographed below was kind enough to drop in and perch up on the inside of our bathroom window. All of this proved quite a distraction even for this bird-brained naturalist: more and more every spring and summer I realise just how many insects there are and how many of them are worth looking at. This year I hope to continue the process of translating that spark of interest into useful knowledge and skills.

Into the second week of fieldwork the weather did finally begin to fail, and with the return to cloud and occasional damp the early butterflies and their assorted friends went back into hiding. As the insect hordes subsided, my bird-sense started tingling again – the great thing about birds is that they never quite go away – and I’m happy to say that so far my new job has obliged in providing some mighty fine sightings: numerous crossbill flocks at two out of the three woods I’ve covered so far, the year’s first blackcaps, willow warblers and a lone tree pipit, four bramblings – hard to find this past winter – and a pair of the increasingly elusive lesser-spotted woodpecker.

In other words, this is just your average cushy job for a career conservationist, right? All fun in the occasional sun? Well, it certainly has its advantages: I’ll see a great many more fantastic things as the season progresses and learn a huge amount too. Field-time is irreplaceable to the budding ecologist, teaching you intuitively how ecosystems work (or don’t) by learning on the ground, rather than from a textbook or television programme. But I confess also that so far I’m finding it rather hard work. Rising before the sun is, strangely enough, not all that easy; nor is navigating your way along the indistinct, path-free edge of an irregularly shaped woodland survey plot that’s already beginning to clog up with new bramble growth. I am distinctly nervous about the potential future state of some of my plots: if last year’s experience is anything to go by, vegetation growth over the summer can render a wood unrecognisable. I fully expect brambles that are currently acting as highly effective snares for my ankles to be at about neck-choking level in July.

Despite these few hardships, I daresay that the weight of inspiration I’ll get simply from spending some quality time back in the woods will win out over any potential over-exhaustion, and lead to a newly increased blogging frequency. If that doesn’t happen, please call out the search parties: the woods might well have eaten me!

*I’m proud of having, thus far, attracted readers from four countries, and welcome new additions to the international list with open arms!

**And, this being a British spring, in some parts flipping back to snow again as April arrived.


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