It’s gloomy in the small woodland near my home. The air is thick and heavy, full of the musty smell of parched vegetation longing for relief, as a day of heat and sharp shadows has ceded a sullen, pregnant sky, full of threat and fine drizzle. Underneath the arched cathedral roof of spindly, overcrowded ash and beech, the wood is quiet, waiting. I can hear the rustles of a foraging blackbird, the indignant bubblewrap sound of a disputing wren, and the feeble trickling of the sedated stream, shorn of its winter might and power and little more now then a series of connected pools. But there is a sound missing.
Ahead of me are the bleached, ivy-draped remains of an ash that snapped in the gales six winters past. Near the splintered crown there is a hole, perhaps two inches across. A foot lower is a second, eighteen inches below that a third, and a fourth at the height of my own head. This one is ringed with bright wood, and I can make out tiny conical indentations around the edge where it has been patiently shaped to an almost perfect circle. I have haunted this tree for weeks now, watching silently from the shadows as one after the other, two parent birds have fed a shouting chick inside. They are great spotted woodpeckers, and for four years they have chosen to nest here, next to a path used constantly by dogwalkers and lockdown families, perhaps for the safety that the presence of people brings from the squirrel and weasel that would steal their precious young. Two days ago, these woods were filled with a relentless sound, like a dog endlessly chewing on a squeaky toy, as the young woodpecker demanded food and food and food. Now the nest hole is silent, and I have missed the moment that I had so hoped to see when, damp and ruffled, the young woodpecker emerged. I feel a mixture of sadness that I missed the moment, joy that the chick has fledged, and an absurd pride that its parents again trusted humans enough to nest within easy reach of us.
As the light dims further, and the rains starts, the silence of the woods feels oppressive until I hear, far above my head, the “bick…bick” call of the female. Perhaps protecting this tree is still ingrained within her; or perhaps she is wistful, truly empty-nesting, her frantic efforts now at an end. I turn up my collar, give her a small wave of farewell, and head for my own nest, empty also these last five years.