Guest blog series, A Break from Humanity (10) by Ian Carter.
Continued from last Saturday
After a few days of getting to know the Colonsay, with lots of short drives and walks to the most accessible places, I thought it was time to venture out into one of the more remote and wilder parts of the island. A look at the Ordnance Survey map drew me to the far north-eastern corner, away from roads and tracks, and lacking even footpaths. It included a remote area of native woodland I’d seen from the ferry, flanked by several square miles of uninhabited, empty moorland on three sides, and miles of low rocky coastline on the other. I parked in the dunes above Kiloran Bay early in the day and headed east, across the moor, towards the opposite coast.
It was tough going in places. The wetter areas of bog threatened to overwhelm my walking boots and I started to scan further ahead, looking out for vegetation that thrives in waterlogged ground. It was too late in the season for the normally reliable cotton grasses, so the fiery, orange flower-spikes of Bog Asphodel were the most helpful indicators. I avoided these, despite their aesthetic appeal, and headed instead for areas covered with Bracken or purple-flowering heathers, both plants that favour drier ground. From a high vantage point I could use binoculars to plot a likely route ahead for a few hundred yards at a time. I kept my feet dry but the Bracken and heather came with their own problems. In the absence of heavy grazing by livestock, both plants were sometimes well above head height – perhaps the tallest heather I had ever seen. At times I was walking under the vegetation rather than through it – pushing between the stiff stems and, on several occasions, finding that my rucksack had become ensnared in a tangled mesh of branches.
After about an hour I reached the edge of the woodland, sloping away to the shore below me, and descended into an enchanted world beneath the canopy. The trees were not tall but the thick lower branches were twisted and contorted in all directions away from their trunks, some no more than a foot or two above the ground. The trees were all familiar species – oaks and birches dominated, but there were also scattered Rowan, Ash and Hazel. The shapes and the colours gave the wood an unfamiliar feel. Mosses and ferns grew profusely from the branches, and lichens of varying shades and textures patterned the bark.
Beneath the trees was more head-high Bracken, the leaves blending greens, browns and yellows depending on their variable progress of decay towards winter. The wood felt slightly surreal; almost wrong for the place. And yet if anything was wrong, or at least less natural, it was the vast open areas beyond the woodland edge. Adding to the surreal experience were the calls of Curlew and Oystercatcher, filtering up through the trees from the shoreline below. There was also a mournful, almost human, wailing that I simply couldn’t place and had me turning in all directions to try to pinpoint. It was another two hours before I worked out where it was coming from.
The Hazel trees were covered with ripe nuts, something that the introduced American Grey Squirrel rarely allows to happen in the woods I’m familiar with. I was searching for a stone to crack open a few of them, rather than risk my teeth, when it slowly dawned on me that I was being watched. I was about to experience something that has happened to me only a handful of times in Britain. A lone Great Tit started things off, landing in the nearest birch and firing a gentle burst of staccato, machine-gun chattering in my direction. It was a call to arms, quickly answered by four more Great Tits and then other species too, including Chaffinches, Goldcrests, Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits, all edging closer to me, intently focussed on my presence. Boldest of all was a tiny Coal Tit. It moved gradually further out towards me in the branches of the birch tree, ending up so close that I thought about reaching out a hand to see if it would hop on.
It’s a strange, almost overpowering, feeling to be the subject of such intense curiosity from a whole community of wild birds, and when it has happened to me before it has been in the wildest and remotest of places. These birds were genuinely bemused to see a creature that was unfamiliar to them and had suddenly, unexpectedly, appeared in their wood. The location made it easy to believe that many of them, especially those reared this summer, had never seen a person before and were interested to watch one for a while to see what it would do next. No doubt birds across the land reacted in much the same way to the first humans to enter their world many thousands of years ago, little suspecting the huge changes they would bring with them. About half an hour later I encountered what I took to be the same flock higher up the slope, and this time I was rudely ignored. They were not going to waste valuable feeding time again having already made their assessment.
Away from the mixed bird flock the woods were largely silent. There were a few rushed snatches of song from unseen Wrens, almost apologetic in their brevity and lack of spring vigour. The only other bird noise was made by Robins, perhaps our most underappreciated songster. Its voice has a melancholy beauty that no other bird can match. In spring it is often drowned out by the louder, brasher songs that demand our attention. But in autumn, its soft outpourings can be savoured, each one trailing gently away into the silence that follows, leaving you waiting in anticipation for the next instalment. To be continued at 12:45 on Saturday…