This week has been very cold, we have had nothing warmer than -4oc during the day for five days now. It has been harder to stay outside during this time, making sure that I keep moving as much as possible to keep warm, difficult for someone who has to stop and look at most everything she spies along the trail. Everything in the landscape seems to be fixed in place right now, the snow has set like rock; old animal and human tracks have been beautifully preserved and new ones laid down only as shadows skimming the top crust. We have had some sun but at this end of the valley, we see it for only a couple of glorious hours as it peaks over the cliff tops and quickly retracts again on its shallow trajectory around the shortest point of the year.
There are blessedly few planes in the sky at the moment, the quiet is bliss and the lack of vapour trails very welcomed. It seems as if my life could be on hold too. I rarely go further than a couple of kms from the house right now and I am loving the solitude and renewed kinship I feel with all the places I know and love around here. I move deeper. It is however, hard to find a sunny place to be; sit spots and observations points really have to be thought about very carefully at this time of year. I tend to gravitate naturally towards the few patches of wood that have sun mellowing through the canopy – thankfully, the birds have the same idea and this week I have had a few close encounters with some feathered friends.
Up in the place that at the moment is my regular sit spot, I was planning on staying only for a short time and although I was sitting on my little ‘tracking’ cushion directly on the snow under a tree, I had moved into a very calm (yet cold) state of being. I was not thinking of much, not even daydreaming. Sitting facing the south west, back against a large pine, watching the still and quiet afternoon turn into evening. I fixed my eyes on the place over the mountains where the sun had disappeared a long while before.
I heard a blackbird alarm call coming from the ridge in front of me. When this happens, I always prick up my ears and keep my eyes peeled for any animal movement in the brush. Nothing. Another blackbird alarmed a little bit further down the ridge this time and I was straining my eyes to see anything at all in the way of movement. I was wary. Alarms sometimes indicate the approach of a person, so few and far between out here up in the woods but not impossible, considering that we still have a week of hunting season to get through and this is a stretch of prime deer-shooting forest. I tensed, I really did not want to be observed by anyone right now, especially not a hunter.
I put myself into intuitive mode. My radar came out and I tried to sense what was going on just over the other side of the ridge. I had a definite feeling of a downward movement, parallel to the ridge, perpendicular to where I was looking. If there was anything or anyone walking along it, they were not coming closer to me, just passing down into the valley. I relaxed.
The next moment, a chaffinch flew with a huge burst from the brush along the ridge and into a tree to my left. Twittering and agitated, chirruping to me for about a minute, on and on. It seemed that he had flown towards me to tell me what was going on along the ridge. He was moving from branch to branch so quickly that I could hardly make out what species he was. That did not matter, of course. He danced around and made his metallic alarm call to me over and over and I found myself looking at him and back to the ridge half expecting someone to jump right out of the bushes there and then.
After all of the bird’s commotion, he disappeared as quickly as he had arrived and I was again on my own. Everything suddenly seemed extremely quiet and still again. I was alone and felt no threat, the ‘danger’ had subsided. As I got up to make my way home, I thought about the chaffinch and how gracious he had been to come and tell me about what was going on along the ridge, whether he was warning me or telling me to go and have a look, I wasn’t sure. His bursting out of the brush towards me felt so urgent that I could not help thinking that it must have been a human walking past, there are no other animals in the woods that can cause such a violent reaction from birds as a person. I made a note to myself to return tomorrow and check the tracks along the ridge to see exactly what had passed by me so closely, yet remained hidden from view.
The cold was starting to penetrate every part of me now. I knew that I had been sitting too long on the snow and so I made my way back down to the valley floor and along the cross-country ski piste back home. These pistes are a tracker’s nirvana; they are groomed early every morning ready for the day’s skiers and provide the perfect substrate for paw and hoof prints, if one can get out before the pisteur has done his rounds and obliterated everything that has passed along it the night before. Often during the day, you can see tracks along certain stretches of piste in the woods that weren’t there on the outward leg of you walk and it gives a really good sense of who has passed through, often only minutes before you have got there. It is so easy to imagine that the forest during the day is a pretty deserted place but these beautiful flat groomed pistes tell such a different story.
Walking back along a stretch of piste towards home; the piste that I had scrutinised on the way to my sit spot earlier, I saw a very fresh set of four or five deer tracks making their way from the end of the ridge across the piste to the thick woods on the other side. I would say a group of hinds and their yearlings moving at a quick pace towards the river. They had even deposited a fine spray of mud in their wake all over the tracks of skis that had passed there earlier in the day. This was what my chaffinch had been so alarmed about!
And the feeling I had of movement along the ridge came flooding back to me as I looked at the tracks. I had felt it in my body but had not trusted my instincts enough to understand exactly which animals were passing through. Even the chaffinch was telling me what I did not quite believe: it was a group of deer, making their way quickly towards the river in the early dusk, nervous because of all the activity that had been going on along the piste all day, knowing that they were going to have to cross over it and were obviously building up their confidence as they descended, which was what stirred up the emotions of the blackbirds and that wise, yet agitated chaffinch who flew to me.
Walking back in the half-light, I was so ecstatic about what I had just witnessed and the fact that I had been able to correlate real and tangible evidence of the animals who passed by with the bird behaviour I had observed. That is why paying attention to ALL the occurrences in the environment can be such a rewarding experience and I feel so blessed that a little bird told me exactly what was going on in his neck of the woods that evening.