The brightness of the moon, descending towards dawn, leaves the clear-fell bathed in light. Dead grass stems, thickened with frost, have the appearance of fragile bone, creating an expanse pale colour that contrasts with the dark depths of the silent conifers standing sentinel behind. Each of my two dogs leaves a visible cloud of exhaled air, like two furry steam trains puffing their way along the forest track. It is the end of a beautiful night and a bright clear morning lies ahead.
Overhead a procession of Rooks is heading out from the overnight roost to seek food in the surrounding fields. They are early risers, unlike the Woodpigeons who stumble from sleep and their treetop perches as I approach the shelterbelt that runs alongside this part of the track. A bird rises from the verge ahead of the dogs, a rounded body carried on broad wings – a Woodcock and my first of the winter in the forest. They are not uncommon here at this time of the year, resting by day in the cover of the forest and feeding by night on the soft arable that surrounds. Presumably, they must feed in the shadow of the forest on nights like this when the frost crisps the soil’s surface and makes probing for worms that much more difficult.
A larger shadow can be seen further ahead, slipping quietly across the track before pausing to take stock of me and the dogs. It is the fox whose scent I often smell along this particular stretch, stringent and clawing on the throat. Satisfied it slips into the undergrowth and away. A late Tawny Owl calls, the call itself somewhat shrill and incomplete. Perhaps this is a young bird setting up territory for the first time. The call is sufficient, however, for one of the resident birds to respond with a mature, resonant hoot. Soon other birds respond, a brief overture of noise before silence returns.
It is then that I pick up the flight calls of Redwing passing overhead. These birds may be on the move because of the colder conditions pushing in from further north. Frozen ground can spell disaster for them, restricting access to the soil-dwelling invertebrates on which they depend. These small thrushes seem to exist on a knife-edge at this time of the year, on the move continually to seek out the best feeding conditions and making journeys that may carry them south into continental Europe or west towards Ireland.
In many ways I find this the best time of the year to be out in the forest. There is none of the dry heat of summer or the damp of later autumn. It is crisp, clear and makes you feel alive.