Last days of autumn

img_2394The frost on the ground is melting, steam rises gently from standing water on the fields. I walk slowly, almost holding my breath. Last time I came to the woods I flushed a heron from just over this rise – I hadn’t been paying attention; I’d been dashing in my keenness to get to the wood when the feathered cape of grey had erupted to the side of me, screeching its disapproval. I’d barely had chance to register what it was before the heron was soaring away above me, circling the field, disappearing into the distance.

Today I hope it will be there again. I creep up to the brow of the ridge. I see no heron, but I am momentarily confused by the bird I do see there. It’s moving slowly, one stride at a time. Rook? No. It takes a second to gain perspective. This is a buzzard. It has seen me and is off, but not before I glimpse the deep browns of its feathers, the slight variation in hue between its breast and its wing.

I am saddened and anxious today. As I started my walk to the wood, I found a badger, dead on the roadside. I think it was a male. I could see no reason for its death, no marks of a fight, no gunshot wound, only a faint scratch on its nose. I guess it was hit by a car, that its injuries were internal, but I feel a slight unease. I’m worried that someone has been up at our sett again, that the badger has been killed and dumped at the side of the road. I am trying to not let this spoil my day – the badger may not even have been from our wood, it may have been a young male out looking for new territory – but the first thing I do when I get to the wood is check on the main badger sett.

The sett is fine, though it’s beginning to look a little disused. Most of the entrances have not been trod in a while, there are damp leaves everywhere, but there is one entrance clearly still being used as a removal route for new excavation material and I can see badger footprints in the mud. I feel ridiculously glad that the sett is undisturbed and my surroundings come back into focus.

The sun is watery, its initial bright appearance this morning now filtered by pale grey cloud. I see the buzzard through tree branches, banking and wheeling over the wood; every now and then it makes its haunting mewing cry. Otherwise the wood is silent. There is a strange feeling of dormancy about everything. Damp leaves lie like a blanket over the ground, moss muffles up the trees and rocks. The air feels cold – not a bracing cold of snowy mornings, but a quiet lack of warmth that sneaks in without me really noticing; I get moving again to shake it off.

As I wander through the woods I bump into small flocks of birds, mainly tits, and it’s nice to hear their subdued twitter. It mixes with the occasional rattle of a mistle thrush, the odd call of a curlew. Redwings fly over the trees. I find huge, red deer footprints in the mud and a tuft of red deer hair – I’ve not seen evidence of them for a while, it’s good to see them back. And then, near the workshed, I notice the badgers have been turning over our path. Leaves are swept to the side, earth crumbled round shallow pits. The digging is so fresh, that I look around and listen – surely the badgers can only just have left. I do hear rustling, but I expect it is just squirrels. Badgers should be safely tucked up in bed at this time of day… I follow the tantalising rustles for a while, but I eventually lose track of them.

Every now and then the sun peers through the thickening cloud, and with the momentary lightening, the wood changes its feel. At this time of year, with leafy buffer removed, the mood of the wood is at the mercy of the skies. As I run, long shadows chase playfully ahead, flashes of sun burst between the trees, colours well up out of the greys; the wood is transformed into a canvas of green moss, silver bark and warm brown leaf. And then it is gone again, in its place a momentary feeling of loss.

It’s time to go. I leave the wood, pull my scarf closer, stuff my hands deeper into my pockets. As I walk, I hear a strange noise in the distance. I stride across the field, bringing the sound closer- is it children playing? Frustratingly, just as I stand still to listen, the noise stops abruptly. I continue onto the lane, down towards my parked car and suddenly I am assailed by noise. I see a huge flock of starlings; a murmuration. I watch as the birds move across the sheep fields below me in a huge swarming mass, a synchronous shadow that expands and contracts, an impulsive dance of sound. Then, as quickly as it started, it settles on the field into silence once more and I feel again the quiet I found within the wood; I feel again the stillness of these last days of autumn. Winter is coming and nature is prepared.