Thetford Forest is not a uniform place, but a mosaic of habitats. From blocks of broadleaf trees in recreation areas or as buffers along roads, to areas of open grassy heathland, to patches of the commercial pine plantations. Even within those commercial blocks no two patch is the same, with areas recently felled, those with new trees planted and areas with trees ranging in age from a couple of years to nearly 60, and in height from half a metre to 10s of metres. Each of these patches provides habitat for a different suite of species.
It was April and while still a little chilly in the morning, the sky was clear blue and the sun had all the warmth of summer. We had arrived at the parking spot at a reasonable time in the morning, the aim to go in search of, and try to catch some Firecrest. Of course our own little bird had other ideas. Despite no need for an early alarm for this trip, the growing emergence of teeth had woken Robyn early once more. This time it was her turn to wake Mummy and Daddy. And so on arriving in the Forest, she was of course sound asleep in her car seat. So while Daddy headed off with his trainee Ieuan, I was left to sit in the warm sunshine watching the Forest around me. Immediately next to the car was a mix of broadleaved trees with deep green ivy wrapped round the trunks like a cloak. Ahead was a very long straight track, one of hundreds that cross the Forest in a grid pattern, known as Fire Routes. On one side of the track, dense tall, dark green and brown conifers reach into the blue sky. On the other is a patch of open clear fell. The area looks bald, but it is anything but bare ground; there are the greys and browns of soil, stumps and debris of wood, pale yellows of dried grass, rusty browns of old bracken, margins of verdant green grass and all bordered by more tall, dense conifers. Dotted in the open space, standing like sentinels, are a couple of tall trees. Usually broadleaves trees, they are left on purpose when the conifers are felled, and provide perfect song posts for species of birds that also like such cleared areas, with the scrubby debris and short grass, for nesting. From the car I can hear two that the Forest is renowned for. A Woodlark sings at the far side of the patch, it’s melodic, warbling song floating across the warm air. Nearer to me, and coming from one of those sentinel trees, is the unmistakable song of a Tree Pipit. A closer look reveals the bird singing from the branches or scooting high into the clear blue sky and parachuting down to the ground whilst in full song. In a classic juxtaposition of the year, behind me I hear that classic winter visitor the Brambling calling…
Finally Robyn wakes from her slumber and we head down the track in search of the team and those Firecrest.
It is slow going walking with a 20 month old. But in one way it makes you notice more. As we walk past the cleared patch the sun bathes the wide path in glorious warm sunlight. Brilliant yellow dandelions dot the bright green grass of the verge, and flitting from one to another I see my first Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Green-veined White and Orange-tip butterflies of the year. The song of the Tree Pipit and Woodlark follows us, while on the other side I can hear Siskin, Chaffinch, Robin and Goldcrest singing in the trees. Overhead a Buzzard soars into the blue, effortlessly gliding over the trees below.
We reach the end of the clear fell patch and the tall trees crowd close to the path on both sides. Now ahead is a beautiful avenue of tall shady trees, with dense forest on either side of the wide path. The sunlight comes through in broken patches, in which we catch sight of hoverflies delicately maintaining their position in the sunny patches. The path is littered with pine cones and needles.
We stop for a snack (as you do) and I glance up looking at the deep green of the pine needles against the brilliant blue sky. We keep going, heading for the light at the end of the avenue, where the trees disappear to be replaced by a wide open grassy space of a picnic area. Just as we reach the end of the avenue we find the team. They are just emerging from the dense trees and shrubs off the path having set the net one final time for those Firecrest. We do not need to wait long before they head back into the trees to see what has been caught and re-emerge five minutes later with three birds securely ensconced in bird bags. One by one the birds are carefully removed from their bag, identified, ringed, aged, sexed, and measured. One Robin and two…. Firecrest! Yes despite missing most of the expedition while Robyn slept we had managed to turn up at the last moment and see not one but two Firecrest, a male and a female.
All that was left was to release them back into the forest, at which point the male immediately started singing again, and for us to head back down the avenue of trees to the patch of clear fell and the waiting car…
Please note that Lee and I have the appropriate ringing and Schedule 1 licence to be able to catch and ring Firecrest at this time of year.