Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part three)

Crested tit, Abernethy
Crested tit, Abernethy

I’ve just returned from a 1300 mile road trip which took ten days, and culminated in a couple of days in the Caledonian pine forests of Speyside. If that sounds excessive you’re right. I probably spent more time driving than enjoying the landscape or wildlife!

I spent quite a few happy days on Speyside during the 1980’s when I worked for the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland for a short while. At the time I felt that, more than anywhere else I had experienced, the pine forests of the Spey valley had the “feel” of the primeval past. Each individual pine tree seem to speak of the ages (a far cry from the commercial plantations of mid-Wales and elsewhere) and the overall impression was more than the sum of its parts. So it was a bit of a pilgrimage for me to go back .

I had a day in the Abernethy forest near Aviemore, which is now owned by the RSPB. Much of the management work they have done has been with the aim of allowing the forest remnant to regenerate naturally and it was quite noticeable how successful this has been. It is sometimes said that we feel most comfortable in a parkland-type landscape because it is similar to the savannah which was our ancestors’ home when they first emerged from the African forest. Well, I think my ancestors must have emerged into the pine forest somewhere…….

Birdlife in the forest was, I think it is fair to say, pretty sparse. I regretted that I had not returned in spring; but then I always want to be everywhere in spring! Just occasionally one would encounter a mixed flock of small birds as they passed through high in the forest canopy. These flocks consisted of coal, blue and great tits, goldcrests and willowchaffs, with the odd crested tit mixed in. The presence of one of these Speyside specialities could be inferred from its trilling call and as soon as I heard it out would come the long lens. But in most cases the birds passed by high overhead.

Pine seeds seem to take root along the sides of tracks where loose bare soil is exposed. This leads to the formation of what is, in effect, a narrow barrier of young pine trees. Out towards the edge of the forest I came across a couple of “cresties” moving along such a row whose maximum height was only about six feet. This looked more promising! But the birds kept their distance and could barely be seen. Then I remembered a trick which I had read about in a book called “Sharing nature with children”, but never really tried. Probably too embarrassed…… but what the hell, there was no-one else around!

The trick is to make a “p” sound with pursed lips, then open the mouth and make a sssshhhhing sound, and end with a “t”. “Psssshhhhht” . That’s it!  Repeat over and over again as necessary. Perhaps any similar sound would do but it seemed to work. It attracted a willowchiff and a wren appeared from nowhere to investigate. Rather than moving ahead of me along the track  the cresties came closer and closer until one paused in full view just a few metres away. And I was well equipped and prepared to make the image. It was a relief to open up the file and discover that the bird is sharp and looks good amongst the pine needles. These opportunities don’t come along too often, especially when you live in rural Wales.

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