A day in the lockdown life of a Volunteer Ranger words and pictures by Alan Coe

It's about 6.30 in the morning and I am gently turning the front door key in the lock, trying not to make too much noise which may wake my partner as I leave for my morning walk. Two years ago Deborah (my partner) would already have left for work in her role as a District Nurse Manager. I think a bit of a lay in is now in order for her after all those years. Even more so now, following her decision to answer the call for former nurses to go back and help the NHS in this time of crisis. She may be leaving home before me once again in the near future.

As I walk up the path there is a slight April frost on the car windscreen as I walk past it, but a glance toward the horizon assures me it will be a warm day. Two minutes after locking the door and stepping out of the garden, the tarmac lane disappears and I am on a bridle path. I could walk straight on but instead I turn left down a footpath and head towards Wither Wood, a small Woodland Trust site just on the edge of our village, Denby Dale. At this time of year the wood anemone and celandines carpet the floor, and the bluebells are just beginning to appear. But my main reason for visiting the wood is a hope that I will spot a sparrowhawk or even a tawny owl. On a previous day I heard a tawny making an apology of a hoot during the day time. I have no real expectation of seeing one, and that expectation proves to be correct. I also fail to see the sparrowhawks, but I am confident I will come across them one day soon. They have nested successfully in this wood for the last few years and I have seen one circling over it just recently. I do see the woodland flowers though, and there's lots of nuthatch, treecreeper , and great tit activity to keep me interested.

I leave the wood via a different route to my entrance by climbing over a style. I then set off across the farm fields, walking by a hedgerow until I start to descend toward a little valley. As I walk along my attention is drawn towards a dark shape sat in a large tree to my left. A buzzard sits there watching me pass by. I lift my camera and manage two or three quick shots before it takes off and flies out of range. Still, I think to myself, it is a good sighting, and a pleasant change from the overhead views I normally see.

I walk on a little further, through a style and come to one of my favourite little footpaths, sitting in its own little valley. There are two hedgerows, one about five metres to my right and another 12 metres or so to my left. They stretch out like two parallel walls forming a corridor in front of me. A little brook runs alongside the left hand hedge and it winds its way though some large trees before it passes behind some hawthorn, blackthorn and bramble patches . Straight away I hear the unmistakeable chip of a tree sparrow, sat on top of one of the hedges as I walk past. This spot is a haven for blue tits, great tits, robins, and wrens as well as the tree sparrows. I hear them all but I have my eyes peeled for something else, and I am not disappointed.

As I walk along the path between the hedges, I have my eyes on one particularly large ash tree that towers over the right hand hedge. On one side of it there is a gaping hole where a huge bough broke off in a storm, but it's not the tree's sculpture I'm studying. There is a small shape sitting on a branch. Even without binoculars I recognise the silhouette of a little owl. I see one on my walk almost every morning as I go along this path. On earlier visits it would have taken flight as soon as it realised I was watching it, but more recently it has tended to stay where it is, and stare back at me. Today it seems to ignore me completely and just carries on looking around then having a snooze. As I get closer, I train my camera on it and start firing away. It looks at me and I look at it. It hops from one branch to another but makes no attempt to flee. Once again, it shuts it's eyes and soaks up a few more of the Sun's rays.

After a few photographs I walk along just a few metres further and look back to see if I can get a different angle or pose. I am rewarded with the sight of not just one little owl, but a pair. The first one still snoozing and the other gazing back at me. It is a wonderful sight, but I don't want to disturb them for too long and I move on.

Since our lockdown began I have noticed an increase in the numbers of walkers using this path. They obviously have the same thoughts as me, "I'll go out early when fewer people are around and avoid social contact". I've watched almost everyone walk straight past this tree without looking up, completely unaware of the special presence just above their heads. 

I carry to the end of my current footpath, where a kissing gate leads me back onto the same bridle path that I left just a half hour (and a few hundred metres) ago. The little brook runs by a dry stone wall to my left and then passes under the path ahead. As I walk by it and turn by the wall, the corner of my eye spies a movement by the brook. Something small and brown has leaped across it. I stand watching with my camera poised, and suddenly a weasel runs out of the hedge and starts to cross the path. I keep pressing the shutter release button on my camera and I notice that it is carrying something that almost looks too big for it to manage, but can't quite make out enough detail. Once the weasel has disappeared I inspect the images on the camera's playback screen. It becomes clear that it has caught a vole, just highlighting how small the weasel was.. I start to wonder whether or not that vole is being taken to a nest to feed some kits, or is it being taken away to be cached somewhere safe to be called upon at some future time, as if it were a precious treasure.

I decide to follow the bridle path back towards home. As I walk along I hear another sound that attracts my attention. Somewhere in front of me a yellowhammer is singing its distinctive song. "A little bit of bread, but no cheese" is how the books try to describe it. That doesn't really work for me, but I have no adequate alternative to offer. The yellowhammer is a favourite of mine and I can now clearly see it through my binoculars, a sight that gets my pulse quickening. I manage to get close enough to take several photographs as it sits on the hedgerow. After a minute or two it flies away, and I decide I need to fly away too. I quicken my pace and head home.

As I open the door I can smell coffee and I see there is a mug waiting for me to pour myself one. It's been an eventful walk with plenty of wildlife to see, and all before 8.00am. I haven't even had breakfast.

After a shower and some breakfast, we decide it is time to go food shopping in the village, but first we need to visit a local amenity to carry out some essential tasks. We are both members of a volunteer group called Friends of Churchfield. Churchfield is designated greenspace, and it is looked after by the "Friends" but lockdown restrictions mean the team cannot carry out any "proper" maintenance work. We are allowed to do some minor, but essential tasks on an individual basis though. Deborah will go to the community garden, situated within the field, and water the vegetables. I will empty a bin provided by the friends for the benefit of dog walkers. Naturally we are both sure to wear gloves and sanitise hands properly afterwards. I walk around the field photographing some new trees that we planted in the Autumn. Wildflowers are beginning to spring up, and the pollinating insects are getting busier. The grass has just been cut by our contractor and now starlings, goldfinches, and blackbirds are searching amongst the cuttings for tasty morsels. Bumble bees are buzzing around flowering currant, and a sparrowhawk circles above but it is too high to capture on camera.

Once back at home, when the shopping is put safely away and hands are washed, it is time for a cup of tea whilst sitting on the patio. In spite of a smallish garden, we have managed to pack it with plants and trees. The pear and cherry are in blossom and the pollinators are all over them. Sparrows and blue tits keep landing on the apple tree and on a beautiful twisted willow that is just allowing dappled sunlight to come through. I often say "we" have planted, but in truth it is Deborah that is the real garden planner. For my part, I accept that what she says will be infinitely better than my plans. 

Later I go into the front and side gardens, where I am attracted to our little pond. I often say it's the best thing we planted. Every year I sit watching tadpoles swimming around it. This year the frogs seem to have produced a record number and the pond is teeming with them. Last year we also had large red damselflies emerging, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that I may see them again this year.

I have also started to post some photographs from my daily walks on local group pages. I always try provide interesting facts about the subjects, to accompany the photographs. I am actually quite astonished by how well the other villagers have received and reacted to these posts. As I sit in front of my laptop I see notification after notification popping up on my screen with "likes" and comments piling in. Of course the little owls are the stars and I think people are tuning in for the next instalment of their life story. It is very gratifying to know that people appreciate what you do.

I did receive one quite moving comment, which really made me think. A lady posted on one of my items "As a housebound person, your posts have given me an insight into a usually forbidden world. Thank you so much." I think I shall continue posting to that page after this lockdown is over. I think another lifestyle change is in order.

As it approaches 8.00pm we remember it is Thursday so there is one other task to fulfil. We step out into our front garden once again, and join all our neighbours in giving the round of applause to thank all our NHS and Care workers for their unselfish efforts.