Craggy corks

Cork Oak woodland (Martin Kelsey)
A hush descended on us as we made the gentle descent, provoked partly by an instinctive response to help our ability to pick-up even the slightest brief bird call, but also I think by the shared sense of reverence. Entering this hidden cork oak glade was like walking into an ancient building, from sunshine into a dappled shade with a pull of heritage. Indeed the very structure of the woodland gave a sense of depth as we looked between the trunks enclosed by a vaulted canopy and the architecture strongly reminded me of a cathedral's crypt. This had resonance with an awareness that the trees' trunks were moulded by generations of men. Like two-toned pillars, the trunks were dusky and even-textured up to the reach of the corking blade, and then as the trunks forked and branches spread, they set a contrast, being deeply fissured and greyed by countless lichens. These trees were in the latter stages of the nine-year cork harvesting cycle, witnessed by the evidence that the new cork was now approaching the thickness of that on the uncut upper reaches of the tree.

Angel's Tears Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)

Despite the spacing of the trees on this slope, which gave this woodland an open feel, with natural clearings, there was enough shade to have slowed the progress of spring. On the woodland floor stood freshly opened Angel's Tears Narcissus, which I had first seen flowering this year a full two-months previously in sunny sheltered locations. Now in late March, such shady aspects provided the last remaining refugia for this herald of spring. Littering the ground were old fallen branches which showed the toughness of the remarkable material that is cork. The older of these boughs were completely hollow, where the wood had rotted away, leaving a perfecly formed tube of cork. The resilience of the cork was matched by its lightness: I could easily lift a two-metre long cork pipe with just one hand.

The textured cork and differential rotting rates of broken branches and snags help to explain the richness of the cork oak woodlands for small birds. There is a substrate for them filled with places where insect food can be found and nests can be excavated. As we stood, Short-toed Treecreepers sang and we watched one ascend a tree, initially showing up well against the smoother, dark harvested section of the tree, and then becoming extraordinarily cryptic as it crossed the line into the textured upper reaches. The stronger, firmer two-note call of Nuthatch rang out from some hidden perch, whilst equally distantly came a rapid series of notes from a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Barely audible were the whispered squeaks of Long-tailed Tits, followed by the soft trilling of a Crested Tit. Checking a movement in amongst the outer branches of a rogue holm oak on the hill slope, a Firecrest emerged, garlanded as it were by lichen.

Firecrest (Martin Kelsey)
Then our attention was drawn to a more urgent, whinnying sound from above. Looking up through a gap in the canopy, we could watch two Black Storks embarking on a slow circular flight. They were beautifully synchronised in motion, alternating glides with slow almost stereotyped flaps. The leading bird had its elegant and slender neck held stiffly in a crooked downward arch, its bill open as it gave its bonding ceremonial call to its mate. In the context of this cathedral-like woodland, this display had an almost sacramental ritual, but in truth was a more primordial rite, the rising sap of spring running in the veins of all life here.


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