Winter had arrived with temperatures plummeting overnight. Ice gripped the landscape. Frosted white, minute crystals clung to every blade of grass and any leaf that dared remain on dark branches. Standing water had become locked under a lid of ice that was clear like a mirror, a miniature world trapped beneath, and opaque where it had cracked. The horizon had that hazy cast that appears when the air is so cold but the sky above remains a pale clear blue.
Even by the afternoon patches of frost remained in sheltered areas. The dipping sun filled the wintry world with golden sunlight, glimmering off leaves, grass and frost.
In the shade of the forest the cold bites deeper even while sunlight filters between tree trunks. And yet in this frozen, darkened world where only fingers of sunlight penetrate, there was a promise of the warmth of spring to come. The first snow drops had pushed up out of the dark earth and carpet of rusty dark brown leaves. Delicate green stalks topped with beautiful bell like white flowers that glowed almost translucent in the rays of light. The contrast of pure white, vibrant green against the dark, brooding trees and bright blue beyond was mesmerising. I crouched down to ground level, breathing in the crisp, musky earthy smell of cold leaf litter.
The canopy of the forest was also alive despite the cold. Birds called and flitted between branches and the ivy that covers many of the trees, almost like a cloak. There were finches, tits and thrushes moving between the branches and the leaf litter. Higher up there was the call of a firecrest. Britain’s smallest bird battling to survive the cold snap. Moving with with rapid, restless movements, he flickers from branch to branch seeking food in an endless dance.
The path emerged from the forest into the low blinding sun. Ahead the landscape opened into a grassy paddock with clusters of tall trees standing sentinel in its midst. The pasture is grazed by shaggy Highland cattle, unperturbed by the cold, their warm coats varied from deep red to blond.
Alongside the cattle, black glossy crows patrolled the grass, and under the trees there were tantalising glimpses of flocks of thrushes and finches. Then at the very top of the trees another finch caught the eye. Even at a distance it had a stocky, bulky appearance with a large head and massive powerful bill. Its head was orangey brown with a clear black bib and eyestripe. Its back was dark brown with a distinct white wing bar, while underneath it was paler browny orange. It is the UK’s largest finch, the hawfinch, a bird I have had the pleasure and pain of seeing up close and personal. But they are typically elusive, especially during summer, tending to stay high up at the tops of trees. But when winter brings bare branches and an influx of continental migrants, they can be easier to see and Lynford Paddocks in Thetford Forest is a known ‘hot-spot’ for them.
Finally the sun disappeared behind the surrounding forest, leaving the mere tops of the trees and their stocky visitors in the last rays of winter sunlight.