I am scraping through wet leaf litter with some friends. We are looking for hazelnuts nibbled in the precise way a dormouse eats them. We know dormice are present locally and hope to make this wood a better habitat for them.
Mooching about, our close-looking is rewarded – not by hazelnuts nibbled in a certain way, but by other intriguing and exciting field signs. There is a mysterious hole in a tree. It is about the size of the bottom of a drinking glass, 2ft off the ground and clearly in frequent use. The entrance is polished with use and an obvious, smooth path to it has been worn through the thick, velvet covering of moss growing on the northside of the trunk. It looks like the cosiest place in the wood. We peer in, searching for hair or footprints; the dark inside as velvety as the moss without, and try to puzzle an answer. Stoat? Polecat? Both, we know, are in the vicinity.
Our second find causes a frisson of excitement. The plucking post, used by a bird of prey last spring, is back in use. An upended root stump from a tree long since cut up for firewood, stands like a megalith in a clearing. Its dead roots still cling to flints wrenched from the clay with its fall and it is populated with turkey tail fungi. Strewn and draped all over it, like a sacrificial altar, are the grisly remains of dead birds. But not just any birds. These are the sizable remains of several pheasants: breast plates picked clean, grey scaly feet attached to legbones, the tendons gone, the thin bone porcelain white. And hanging over roots like coathangers, are discarded angel wings.
But the goshawk is not called ‘ghost of the forest’ for nothing. If, indeed, that’s what it is. Staking out these two new finds is going to be tricky. Neither animal works to a predictable timetable.
But we are so near. These are the remains of very recent meals. Tantalisingly, despite the morning’s rain, the feathers of a hen pheasant are still blowing about, as fluffy and dry as if they’d been pulled from a pillow. And the blood hasn’t yet dried on a severed wing.