Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Quiet Woods

Last weekend Julie was at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dene for an Equine Psychotherapy workshop, which apparently from all accounts was fantastic. Anyway I thought as I don't know that area very well, I'll offer to drive Julie there and back each day and that will give me 4 hours a day to amuse myself, with a spot of walking-cum-birdwatching.

Safely dispatched on Saturday I headed off to a place called Tidenham Chase. I've had to look up some facts and figures, but this area of Gloucestershire sandwiched between the River Severn, and Chepstow in Wales was a real gem of a find. It had a real feel of isolation, yet as the crow flies, just 15 miles from Bristol.

Parking the car I headed into the woods which have recorded woodcock, nightjar, crossbills and other classic boreal avians. Today though, and as is oft the case in mid winter woodlands the birdlife was sparse and hard to see.

I didn't mind, the day was sunny, mild (for December) and I was just enjoying the walk, when all of a sudden I came across these free range pigs. This is how pigs should be kept, not indoors. The gentle snuffling and grunts told me they were happy pigs, if a little dirty.

There is something magical about being in a silent wood in mid-winter. There is a heady presence of silence everywhere, mainly as the birds are mostly silent at this time of the year. Yet this silence is just a smoke screen for life carrying as normal, if we just look a little harder, such as these flies, grabbing as much warmth from the suns rays as it is possible to do in mid December.

The views up here across the River Severn to "mainland Gloucestershire" were stunning, and if you are wondering that's Berkley Nuclear Reactor on the distant shoreline.

Tidenham Chase seems to actually be an amalgam of smaller woodland areas. This area, as was most of the Forest of Dene, was a mining region, so there is much evidence of past exploitation of the coal reserves underground. At an adjoining woodland called Parson's Allotments, I stumbled across this monument.

And try as I might I can not find out what this monument is about. The inscription said VP 1837-97 (or was it 1867, it had some damage to it). Was VP the Parson of the woods name? I'd be interested to know more.

I did see some wildlife of course. This buzzard idly flew up from the woodland floor and sat looking at me. Which helped me enormously as while watching the buzzard, I noticed a small number of marsh tits flitting about, 3 or 4, but on looking at one of them, one had a very sooty black head, was this a willow tit? It's so hard to tell them apart without song. The marsh tit's did call, but not this sooty black chap, so I can't be certain but my hunch was 3 marsh and a single willow. Quite possible as around these 4 birds were half a dozen blue and great tit. Mixed tit flocks are a very familiar sight in the winter, although long tailed tits, of which I saw many by the pigs, do not seem to be as sociable.
This active hole was also a nice find, woodpecker possibly, but given the damage to the tree around the hole itself it is more probably being used by grey squirrels as a winter site, but again maybe little owl, other birds, even bats, if abandoned.

And so I wound my way back to the car after a glorious 3 hour ramble in December sunshine; it wasn't spectacular, just a pleasant walk in silence.

Sadly the next day, Sunday, brooded dull and the threat of rain in the air. Again Julie safely installed in her Yurt, I headed inland this time to the area around Nagshead, the RSPB site. To begin with I decided to have a wander about the area before visiting the reserve. I have to admit something here, in that I just headed off without really having a clue where I was. Even carrying a map was pointless as I didn't really know where I'd started from. But that didn't matter I was following old forestry tracks so couldn't really get lost.

This hole intrigued me. Ashamedly I've done the classic faux pas of not scaling this. It was about 4-5mm across and on a sandy substrate. I wonder if it is an oil beetle chamber, or mining bee, though a bit late in the season for them. I asked a few colleagues and they're a bit stumped too. Any ideas out there?

No mistaking this jay. I'm a huge fan of all corvids, and jays just fascinate me. But (my incompetence not their ability) I've never ever managed to get a descent photo of one. They're off faster than I can get the camera ready.

A lot of lichen can be found in the Forset of Dene, such as this fairly common Ramalina spp. The forest semed to be good for lichen, presumably due to the ancientness of the area's woodland, and of course being on the west, slightly damper conditions. The forest's longevity is partly due to it's proximity between Wales and England, so, as with many border areas, they weren't developed. Also the low-impact mining which carried on here needed timber for the mine shafts, so there continued a continuity of tree cover rather than clearance for agriculture. You can read more about ancient woodlands and their epiphytes here.

Plenty of squirrel dreys around here too, sadly not the reds, and another interesting sight of some cracking Stereum spp. fungi on stacked logs, which was good to see being left here in a Forestry Commission plantation.

I finally made it to the RSPB's Nagshead reserve just as the rain began to become more frequent. But I was here and decided for one last push and so tramping again through silent woods, I reached the hide, in excitement of possibly seeing mandarin ducks. Absolutely nothing, not a single bird within 100 yards.

But on the way back a nice collection of sulphur tuft fungi on a tree stump. So again the woods may be silent with birdsong, but if we look, there's a lot to see.

So that was it, two days exploring a part of the UK I'm not at all familiar with. It is very hard work birdwatching in woodlands in mid-winter, I probably saw 20 species in 2 days, including some lovely nuthatch on the Sunday. But that's not the point. It's all about getting out there and looking for other signs of life. There are birds there, but they're silent and often hidden. But look closely and we can see lichen, moss, fungi, as well as signs and tracks. And on this last point I shall end this posting.

The Forest of Dene is well known as being home to reintroduced wild boar. While getting myself completely lost in the forest on Sunday, I stumbled across a wild boar area. Optimistically, I'm sure I heard a single grunt from a distance, but in reality I didn't see a boar. I'd love to and think they're a fantastic addition to the UK countryside. But in the area I stumbled across there were many many signs of very recent activity.

Wild boar slot (quite similar to some deer)

a chewing post, and of course the uprooting they do along wide tracks.

To see these it's best to be out there in the dawn or dusk, so I may just have to ask Julie to go and book herself onto another course in the not too distant future...........!!


  1. It looks and sounds as though you had two lovely walks Andrew. Its fascinating visiting new areas and exploring and seeing what you can find.

    The tracks left by the wild boars are really interesting and Nagshead has a spectacular display of bluebells in the Spring if you get the chance to return.

  2. I have so enjoyed reading about the Forest of Dene an area I do not know at all. Your two days poking about, watching and listening sounded so pleasurable. The evidence of what's passed by can stimulate the imagination which is a pretty good second to actually seeing something. Back soon.

  3. Thanks for the tip Ragged Robin, I'll aim to return in the spring, bluebell woods are fantastic.

    Hi Cuby Poet, good to have you visit, thank you. I'll try and make some messages worth returning for :-)

  4. What a lovely walk. I love the photo of the flies on the plant.

  5. This is a beautiful spot & you did it justice with some very good photographs however Dean, as in the Forest of Dean is spelt Dean, not Dene. I was walking in the Parson's Allotment Woods only yesterday & came across the monument you photographed. It actually reads VR 1837-97 & I believe this is a stone erected as a monument to commemerate Queen Victoria's diamond Jubilee. Hope this is helpful.