New Zealand’s beech forests have a smell all their own – a damp earthy aroma that is like inhaling the very essence of life.
You can walk swiftly, quietly, treading over tree roots through the play of light and shade;
Sound, like light, is muted into an expectant stillness. In it, you can hear the trees breathing, follow motes of sunlight dancing their bright rays across a thousand shades of green.
The white steps of fungi jutting from tree trunks, drifting ribbons of lichen, water pooling in a pink-edged mushroom plate; bulbous heads of brown, grey or purple sprouting like magic from the shaded earth.
Inquisitive, apparently fearless, heads cocked, sharp eyes watching – they flit between nearby trees, hopping closer, darting away, fluttering in to peck at a shoelace, even landing briefly on shoulder or leg.
Received wisdom is that they’re primarily after the insect life that humans disturb – but it feels like friendly curiosity. I’ve watched as they tap swiftly against a water bottle, investigate a walking stick, pick at someone’s shoe.
I’ve also seen them peck persistently at ground recently trampled to haul out a wriggling worm so long that eating it looks like an impossible feat. But picked, pecked, sliced into smaller pieces, it all goes down.
You’d think all this closeness would make them easy to photograph – but they’re often inside the parameters of focus my telephoto can manage and move so quickly that they outpace the shutter fall.
I love watching their cheeky antics.