At 5 a.m. on a cool, fresh May morning the wonderful Fingle wildlife can bring all your senses into sharp focus. Before the sun reaches the muted colours of the landscape around Ross Meadow at the furthest end of Cod Wood, the sounds and smells of a spring morning are more defined than any other time of day.
Standing in the gateway, the soft flow of the River Teign and the pungent power of wild garlic captured the moment. Within minutes, the early chords of the dawn chorus were enhanced with layers of eager chatter from the woodland birds all around; singing like their lives depend on it and, in a way, they do. Without this magnificent daily ritual, each of the songbirds wouldn’t establish a territory, wouldn’t find a mate and wouldn’t … well … just wouldn’t. This early morning experience is easily one of the most exhilarating ways to be standing still; you actually begin to feel a part of the wild woods.
As the last few bats snatched an airbourne snack before finding their roost, each bird played its part in the accompanying arboreal orchestra. The chiffchaff kept time for the blackbird and blackcap to overlay their melodies. A song thrush chimed in while the soprano shrill of the wren filled the air. Joining the throng, the blue tit and goldcrest, with many other feathered friends, completed the elaborate soundscape.
Listen to the Ross Meadow soundscape at dawn
The night time grey slowly lifted and the lighter sky pushed between the oaks along the ridge across the valley, revealing the colours of the meadow. Wild flowers were enhanced in the increasing light. The pale primrose and stitchwort emerged from the gloom, followed by the red campion, violets and the hues of bluebells. Looking up, the opening buds on bronzed domes of oak trees contrasted with the shadowy green of ivy clad stems. The depth and intensity of the morning was with us now.
High up on the ridge, overlooking the steep wooded gorge, small migratory songbirds have returned from Africa to spend their summer among the Dartmoor oak woods. Here, in this neck of the woods, the distant calls of cattle and sheep were quelled by the exuberant redstart. Having flown all this way, it was going to make sure it claimed its place among the ancient oaks. Walking slowly down through the vibrant green bilberry with its ruby red flowers a black and white flutter caught the eye. It’s another long-distance traveller returning to its old nest. In fact, there were two; the male and female pied flycatcher sang and danced through the sunlit spaces between the trees. Perching, flitting, flirting, catching flies.
Listen to the redstart and pied flycatchers in the oak woods
As the sky became brighter and the breeze blew warmer, the morning moved on, and so did we.
Diversity is the key to Fingle’s wildlife magic and, finding a gully beneath a stand of rich, green spruce, the microphone was set up where a small stream tumbled down through scrubland and disappeared into a broad leaved wet woodland. Surrounded by a cacophony of sound, the woodland birds continued their urgent songs while a buzzard circled silently overhead. The mini but mighty wren took the lead, followed by the fluty blackbird and reassuringly, ever-present wood pigeon.
Listen to the soundscape of the wet woodland
The warming day was encouraging insects to forage and fly through dazzling arrangements of forest wildflowers and, as we set off to our next biome, a pair of young male fallow deer watched and waited for us to pass by.
Many species of birds appreciate the mixed habitat of a woodland edge. High up on the hill next to Mardon Down, the ranks of conifers come to an abrupt end, giving way to brambly scrub, shrubs and wild flowers. With plenty of cover and places to feed and nest, this area of open ground is usually alive with calls and songs from various finches, warblers and pipits … but not today. As we sat and pondered our next move, we heard the unmistakeable spring sound, “cuckoo … cuckoo!” The male’s call gives the species its name but, listen out for the ‘bubbling’ or chuckling call; this is how the cuckoos communicate with each other. This particular cuckoo came closer, called, moved closer, called again and moved until he perched in a tree just 10 paces away. We were thrilled but he was being harassed by smaller birds; warblers and pipits who, rightly, felt threatened by his presence. After one more “cuckoo”, off he flew, leaving the smaller woodland birds to reclaim their woodland glade.
Woodland Edge Soundscape
by Matt Parkins
Sound recordings and videos – Tom Williams