30 Days Wild: A blog by Osprey Education Officer Ken Davies

We are now well into the swing of 30 Days Wild, and we thought it would be nice to share some of the ‘random acts of wildness’ our staff and volunteers have been undertaking. In today’s blog post, Osprey Education Officer Ken Davies shares a story from a different perspective. 

‘Mum, there’s a man up in that tree!’

The ash tree in Ken’s garden

Thursday 7th June : 7.30am : A dry warm day is forecast, gentle south-westerly breezes, long periods of sunshine. Perfect. Do it today. Do it for ’30 Days Wild’. Yes, today’s the day. After days of planning, this is it. I’m spending the day in a tree.

The Tree :  It’s an Ash Tree, Fraxinus excelsior, a native species in all parts of the UK. This one is on the edge of my garden, and is (so the experts tell me) between ninety and one hundred years old. I ‘inherited’ it when some planning alterations placed it inside my boundary. It has a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) on it, and important-looking men occasionally come from the Council to look at it and tell me what needs doing. Once someone turned up with a device that looked a bit like a doctor’s stethoscope, and invited me to ‘listen to the tree.’ I did, and the sounds were amazing – like rushing water but with all sorts of clicks, creaks and scrapings. We’ve survived some pretty hairy moments, the tree and I – great storms and hurricanes in 1987 and 1990, road building just a few metres away, beasts from the East, ash dieback disease, even a lightning strike once!  And we’re still here! And in the prime of life – well, the tree is anyway!

It’s a part of my life now, this tree. Each spring I anxiously await the first buds, the strange flowers, and finally the fresh green leaves swishing gently in the gentle breezes of April and May. In full summer the canopy is impressive – home to birds, insects, bats, squirrels, lichens, fungi, mosses and liverworts of a thousand different species and more! Must do an ash tree bio-blitz soon! The subtle changes in September become more pronounced in October, as perhaps half a million leaves change hue, become loose, and finally fall to make an ankle-deep carpet of crackling decay (or a soggy matting, depending on the autumn weather). In winter the tree stands bare, tall, majestic, occasionally banging branches together in strong winds, defying the elements, braced to survive until the sap starts to rise again.

 We speak every day. In quiet moments, I put my ear to the trunk, and get whispers back. I’ve asked the tree if it would be OK to spend the day up in the branches as part of ’30 Days Wild’. The response is good – absolutely no problem at all.

The Day in the Tree :

Apart from the first few metres, it’s a super tree to climb. Plenty of nearly horizontal branches, good footholds, comfy perches, fantastic views. The ladder is in place, all preparations made, house locked up, ‘phone switched off. By 7.45, I’m in position. No more contact till 6.00pm. At the foot of the tree I have arranged a series of bags, all with strings attached and labels affixed, such as ‘Lunch’, ‘Books’, ‘Cushion’ and more. The other ends of the strings are in a small rucksack on my back – must try not to get tangled as I climb! I’ve decided to spend about two hours in a variety of positions in the tree throughout the day – years ago I would have gone as high as possible, but these days I am more cautious. I’ve warned all the neighbours what I’m up to – I don’t want someone calling the fire brigade to come and rescue me!

The first stage of the tree climb!

The first hour is divine. From my first perch I can see all over the village and watch as busy people begin their day. I haul up one of the bags marked ‘Cushion’ and settle down. Blue Tits, Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Starlings regard me at first with suspicion, but soon resume their search for food in the foliage just a few metres from me.

At 8.45 a young human voice from the path across the road on the other side of the fence : ‘Mum, there’s a man up in that tree!’  At first there is no reply. I sit still. Then : ‘Don’t be silly, dear, of course there isn’t.’    ‘But Mum……..’

They pass on, on their way to school. A bit further on, they meet another Mum with a child, and they’ve stopped and are looking back at me. I imagine their comment : ‘I see that crazy man at No. 46 is up his tree again.’ 

A Red Kite passes over very low, looking searchingly into the tree. A Magpie watches from a nearby rooftop. House Martins, Swallows and a more distant Swift add to the tapestry. The two Mums are forgotten. This is the life. Time to haul up Bag No. 2, marked ‘Coffee’. I change position and enjoy a latte higher up in the branches. It’s surprising how quickly one adapts to life up here. Just as I did all those years ago when monitoring Osprey nests alone for hours on end out at remote locations, I begin to slip into the worlds of the creatures surrounding me. I find myself carefully turning over individual leaves, searching for the little green caterpillars which the Blue Tits are collecting and delivering to their nestlings in the box on the side of the shed. The two adults are working hard, in and out on average every 45 seconds. Later on I start to lift sections of bark carefully, probing with my bill (sorry, finger nails)  in search of grubs – just as the mouse-like Tree Creeper is doing as she climbs the trunk just metres from me. Unlike her, I do not eat the grubs I find – I leave them for her to find later on. A large orange moth flashes crazily away from me and into an adjacent hedge – abruptly awoken by this clumsy monster in its daytime hideaway.

The tree dwelling Three-toed Sloth of South America descends to the ground once every three weeks to answer a call of nature. Sadly, I do not have the Sloth’s powers of retention, and have to leave the security of the tree for just a few minutes. I’m back up, to the accompaniment of chacking Blackbirds and a singing Song Thrush. I interpret his song : ‘Where have you been? Where have you been? Hurry back up! Hurry back up!’

Bag No. 3 contains lunch, and I haul it up. Cheese, chutney and date and walnut bread from Hambleton Bakery never tasted so good as it does up here, accompanied by a home-made apple, rhubarb and raspberry smoothie! I’m quite high now, higher than the nearby house roofs. People walk past, unaware of my presence. Their earthbound plodding is somehow comical from up here. I am tempted to call out when I see someone I know, but no – that would spoil the adventure. Like some ancient arboreal primate, I move closer to the trunk, leaning back in private and peaceful repose, the only sound the gentle whispering of the new young leaves………I sleep and dream for a while, before waking with a start.

‘He’s still there! Mum, I told you, look, he’s still there, that man in the tree.’ I look down to see her again, pointing up and waving. I wave back. Mum catches up and follows her daughter’s gaze. ‘Leave the poor man alone, Freya. He doesn’t want you shouting up at him.’ She catches Freya’s hand and hurries her on. Freya keeps turning back and watching. I hope I don’t meet her at some point in the future in the local shop or café…..’Aren’t you the man I saw in the tree………?’

4.00pm. Only two hours to go. I didn’t know that ants live in trees. There are thousands of them, marching along the branch I’m on in both directions, intent no doubt on some formic business project. Some are carrying bits of wood in their pincer-like jaws, passing under my cushion and emerging the other side, in a scene reminiscent of an old Tom and Jerry cartoon. I realise some are not going under the cushion, but are going over me and finding detours into all sorts of places on my person. Time to change position.

Bag No 4 contains note book and pencil and a flask of tea. I start to record everything that has happened today. Suddenly  I am conscious that silence has descended onto the tree. The Wren, singing below me for most of the day, is quiet now. The Greenfinch has stopped wheezing, the Chaffinch is not pushing out his wistful refrain – even the House Sparrows have ceased their constant chirping. I see why : a grey shadow has joined me in the tree, totally unaware of my intrusion into his world. A male Sparrowhawk, regular deadly visitor to the garden, often observed from a window, but today my companion in the tree. His yellow eyes watch for an injudicious move by a Great Tit, a Dunnock, or one of the Goldfinches at their mossy nest in the ivy below me. I freeze. He is tense, taut, coiled, ready. I too am on a higher level of consciousness than before. Don’t move, don’t react, don’t breathe even. For a few seconds I am totally in his domain, shape shifting into hawk world, until suddenly the spell breaks and with a wing-flick he is gone. I almost tumble from my perch as I twist to follow him.

It is almost the last act of my wild day, a highlight in a day of adventure and discovery. As I come down from the heights I feel suddenly leaden and heavy again as I resume my terrestrial routine. From the ground I look back up at where I have been. Still the soft sibilant sound of the wind amongst the leaves. The birds are singing again, the ants no doubt still marching, the moths and bats waiting to emerge to surround the tree with life after dark. Thank you for hosting me. I felt the wildness up there.