In search of nature's gifts at a gloomy time of year

A short-eared owl.

A short-eared owl. - Credit: Steven Round Bird Photography

I can’t pretend that, following the dog attack on my own dog Max a few weeks ago, that this winter season has not been overlaid with an extra gloom.

He is thankfully on the mend though the size of his wound will take many weeks to heal. In indomitable form, Max thinks he is fully better, with tail wagging and quizzical looks as to why he cannot chase the ball or tear around the garden! It certainly helps and I feel my own spirits lifted as I see his return.

However, it has dampened my enthusiasm for local walks – hopefully temporarily – but brought home to me just how much my love of the local outdoors is shared with him. We are co-foragers, walking routine walks but always on the lookout for the new and the unexplored. Walking these routes without him is just not quite the same.

Instead, I have driven further afield in Herts and targeted some of our more unusual winter visiting birds thereby avoiding the more familiar places. I will return to them but, for the moment, indulging the more fanatic elements latent within my hobby seems to provide a certain purity of focus allowing me to disengage from the lingering sadness brought about by the attack.

It is not the first time that nature has provided an escape and the ‘tuning in’ to the natural world also requires a ‘tuning out’ of everything else which is perhaps where the solace is found. I visited Hitch Wood recently lying just south of Hitchin and to the west of Stevenage. Described as ‘one of the finest woods in the North Chilterns’ Hitch Wood is part of the St Paul’s Walden Bury Estate and is famous for its bluebell walks in spring.

I, however, came to a winter wood of tall beeches carpeted beneath with this year’s leaf-fall. On entering such woods there is an immediate hush and the ‘cathedral-effect’ of pillared trunks and fanned crowns. The light dims and sounds come to the fore – distant echoes of a dog bark and children somewhere enjoying the natural playground.

Winter woods require work if you are to find their natural treasures. At first they seem utterly silent, devoid of life but then, sure enough, the little contact calls of birds come through the corridors of trees and a glimpse of movement reveals a grey squirrel poised halfway up a trunk. Seeking these little creatures out can easily pleasantly distract a woodland walk however, on this particular day, I was on a mission to find one particular bird.

A hawfinch.

A hawfinch. - Credit: Steve Round Bird Photography

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Often rightly described as ‘shy and elusive’, the bird in question – a hawfinch – is not only difficult to find but is now very scarce in Hertfordshire. Once a regular breeder they are now more likely to be encountered as winter visitors with just a handful of records in most years.

It was therefore with great delight that, after some searching, I came upon a flock of five birds – magnificent finches with truly huge bills and plumage matching the colours of autumn. Knowing where to look – at the very top of hornbeam trees – is half the battle while familiarity with their thin, high-pitched call is the other. Searching for them and finding them felt like extracting hidden gems from the rich woodland lode.

Therfield Heath in Royston.

Therfield Heath in Royston. - Credit: Clare Swarbrick

Buoyed by my success I drove on to Therfield Heath near Royston in north Herts, a new quarry in mind. The wide-open arable expanse along the Icknield Way is home to many over-wintering birds and, as the sun sets low, there is no better (or more beautiful) time to pick out birds of prey drawn to the roosting flocks.

The usual kites, buzzards and kestrels were evident, but I was hoping for something rarer. Just as the sun touched down a small covey of partridges burst up from the long grass and from their midst a large brown bird rose on long, buoyant wings: a short-eared owl! I watched it hunt, following the ditches and momentarily alighting on a bush, piercing yellow eyes staring back at me.

Christmas will bring many gifts – and I hope everyone has a wonderful season – but nature’s gifts, like the hawfinches and short-eared owl, are there to be unwrapped all year round.