The Spruce Tree and the Siskins3 minute read


In this piece of my nature writing, I go for a hike in Thornthwaite Forest, the Lake District, where I encounter a variety of birds, including some siskins.

The Spruce Tree and the Siskins

Although Winter still hangs on, the cheery tunes of chaffinches charge the village of Thornthwaite with a heady hint of springtime happiness. The songs of numerous individuals pleach together to produce a mellifluous, lull-less, musical piece that never ceases to excite the ears.

Not only are my ears excited but my eyes too, for a male chaffinch is an extraordinarily handsome creature; his back is as rufous as a ripe chestnut, his rump is as green as a field of fresh grass, his cheeks and chest are aflush with red, his crown and nape are a blue-grey Chün, and each wing resembles a dark, volcanic rock with an exposed quartz vein embedded within.

Down below, a roadside embankment has been painted white by the hand of Nature with another harbinger of spring: snowdrops. Despite the intense storms of late, the delicate-looking flowers seem not the slightest bit worse for wear.

As I amble along the outskirts of the village, adjacent to Thornthwaite Forest, avifaunal tintinnabulations continue to tantalise the auricular realm.

Long-tailed tits, wide-barrelled darts with shaggy coats, stream along the forest’s fringe. For a brief moment, one of the ebullient little bodies flies straight towards me, allowing me to sneak an unobscured peek at its short, white Mohawk wedged between two, black, parallel head stripes, a view that imparts a slight air of bad boyness to the cute little ball of feathers. As soon as he spots me, he veers right to return to the rest of the gang.

I follow a path alongside Comb Beck, which leads me out of the village and up into Thornthwaite Forest, a mountain forest consisting predominantly of softwoods. Sweeping my eyes over my surroundings, I see the needleless branches of larch, each one of them knobbly and noduled and heavily loaded with short, stout strobili whose hazel-coloured scales overlap like the petals of a partially unfurled flower.

The forest is, however, green with Sitka spruce, the occasional Douglas fir, and, especially at higher altitudes, an unfathomable amount of moss, moss that overspreads the forest floor and envelops and festoons the mid and lower sections of almost every tree.

I feel like I am encircled by gentle, giant moss men in a fantasy world, a world in which I feel wonderfully at ease as I watch the bryophytic drapery sway hypnotically in the breeze.

Suddenly, the distinctive sounds of siskins seep through the trees, a soft utterance of tweets followed by a drawn-out trill wherein the alternation of notes is so rapid it sounds similar to the hum of an insect.

I scan the spruce from whence the calls pour forth, and within seconds I spot a movement. It is a female, a diminutive finch dressed in olive-green and highly streaked, almost as if she, too, is one of the many mysterious moss figures fused into this pleasantly surreal reality.

Just seconds later, the female finch moves out of sight and a male stands under the spotlight. Green, too, is this little fellow, but a green with a sheen that is vibrant and yellow, an other-worldly green, oh-so flashy and showy, a flamboyance enhanced by the black of his cap and bib, and on his wings and tail, not to mention the streaks that flow chicly down his flanks and belly. Then, in the blink of an eye, he is gone too.

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