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Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

Successful classic crime writer Mary Tant, whose sixth Rossington West Country mystery – Don't Come Back – was published by Threshold in Spring 2012, writes about the natural world which is so important in her imaginative life.

April 2012

Sunday 1 April 2012

A pair of collared doves are regular visitors to my garden. Like so many of the birds here, they are quite used to Tirn, my collie, who has never bothered any of them.

Today, one collared dove sat snugly in the sun on the freshly cut lawn, while her partner meandered around pecking at the grass. It was only when Tirn passed close by, his pace slow and pottering, that they moved casually to one side, strolling ahead of him to the back of the garden where they finally hopped up into the rose arbour to see where he was going.

Monday 2 April 2012

Nest building has certainly got under way for some species. This morning a chaffinch sat on one of my hazel hurdles, tugging repeatedly at a long strand of creeper, which was clearly just what he needed. More ominously, a magpie has been pulling strands of coconut fibre out of my shed's trough liners.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Walking in the quarry field today I saw that the overgrown slopes have been cut back beside the stream at one boundary. Two thirds of the way across, posts have been put in to mark off the end part of the pasture. And sadly there were posts for what looks like a stile. That will mean another route will be taken off my collie's already much reduced walking opportunities. He can no longer jump over, or wriggle underneath them.

We walked back beneath the cherry avenue, where the trees were in bloom, their fallen white flowers mingling on the turf with patches of white violets. Glancing through the hedge into the quarry field I saw a scene that could have illustrated the rhyme The Cow Jumped Over the Moon. A herd of heifers had presumably just emerged from a winter confined to barns and yards, and they were now all galloping excitedly around the field, bucking and leaping, and kicking their heels up in the air.

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Thursday 5 April 2012

Dried leaves on the verges of the lane have almost completely disappeared under a sudden burgeoning of green growth. Nettles, garlic mustard, cleavers, lords & ladies, all contribute their own texture and shade of green. Ground ivy flowers offered a hint of blue, while white violets gleamed in small patches.

Death had definitely come to the quarry lane in the night. The first intimation I had was the fluffy mass tangled in the new plant shoots, soft grey under feathers, occasionally tipped with colour. They drifted along the verge towards a bizarre line of upright pheasant tail feathers almost embedded in the ground like fragile bollards. Then there was that most final evidence, a wing torn and discarded from the more meaty body. I wondered if it was the bird that had a narrow escape here earlier this year. Whether it was killed by a car or an animal, a local fox or badger has enjoyed a meal now.

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Friday 6 April 2012

I haven't adapted to the clock change yet, so have been awake and downstairs by five in the morning to give my collie the first of the daily painkillers that help to make his spondylitis bearable. Piercing through the early morning silence in the front garden is the sound of a blackbird patrolling his boundaries. Closer and closer he comes, the song louder and clearer all the time until Billie, my front garden male blackbird, is perched among the pink flowers of the viburnum bodnantense to greet the coming of dawn.

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Saturday 7 April 2012

A glimpse of bright red and gold in the lane gutter caught my eye. Rounded and vivid, it looked like a couple of discarded Christmas baubles. Closer inspection revealed a dead pheasant, body crumpled so that the head with the flamboyant red eye mask lay over the gilded body, creating two rounded shapes.

A large number of pheasants have survived the winter this year. I don't know whether that's evidence of fewer shooters, or more unskilled shooters. But I've seen the birds all this winter, in the fields and meadows and alongside the roads. The males have been facing up to each other for at least a month, the mincing dandified figures transmogrified into ferocious duellers.

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Sunday 8 April 2012

Passing the garden pond today I found that most of the frogspawn had dissolved. In the few remaining patches tiny black tadpoles were wriggling in the sunlight, obviously on the verge of emerging.

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Monday 9 April 2012

The strands of clematis have grown so much that they have begun to bend over, so I must tie them in soon. But as I glanced out of one of my small kitchen windows I saw the tendrils bouncing up and down, under the lightest of drizzle and with no more than a gentle breeze.

Peering out more carefully I saw a pair of sparrows using them as a springboard for the nearby feeder. One bird clung to the hazel trellis that encourages the clematis to grow over the old brick wall that edges the courtyard. It finally sprang awkwardly from there to the feeder perch. Then, as if in a relay, the second sparrow bounced off the clematis towards the feeder, changing places with the first bird before dropping down in turn onto the trellis.

With each sparrow bounce my clematis tendrils sprang back with less and less enthusiasm.

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Tuesday 10 April 2012

The low-lying reed bed below the canal had been cleared last year. Now sallows with pollen-dusted catkins edged the rear of the strangely open space, which was dotted with sedge tussocks. Scattered around them were single cabbage-like leaves and the pink flowering spikes of butterbur, like earthbound corals. The leaves will soon grow hugely, covering the whole of this cleared patch. Once they were used to wrap butter in cottages and farmhouses, perhaps that's how they got their name.

Just walking along a short section of the towpath I could see several plants and trees that would have been used in one form or another by rural people in the past. Tiny, pinhead-sized green buds were clustered at the leaf bases of elders, which would have provided wine from both its flowers and its berries. Hazel leaves were opening on bushes that will be studded with ripened nuts later in the year. Big white felted burdock leaves grew out of a carpet of golden dandelions – the roots of both have long been used to concoct a drink.

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Wednesday 11 April 2012

Sections of the canal were dredged during the winter months, leaving a wide expanse of water and several shiny brown mud sections of bank where it has been rebuilt on the far side. On the near side the plants were putting on a spurt of growth and beginning to attract insects.

The only butterflies I saw were orange-tips, three tiny males drifting together along the water's edge, inspecting the reeds and tussocks for hidden females. If they were to be found here, the butterflies would be in luck for nearby were the first pale pink flowers of lady's smock, one of the orange-tip's favoured egg-laying plants.

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Thursday 12 April 2012

I passed a riverside residence today, directly beside the canal. It was an estate agent's dream site, but the construction was holes in an ivy-covered bank colonised by badgers. Traces of the underlying chalk marked the sett entrances directly over the water, and the precipitous routes that connected them.

I doubt that the animals cared about the beauty of the site, but they must have been undisturbed except for the narrowboats that passed by, and it was directly beneath wide ranging fields and pastures where dining out must have been an attractive choice.

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Friday 13 April 2012

A chiffchaff called repeatedly from the trees beside the canal, his routine motif a welcome sound of spring and not yet a familiar backdrop. Glimpsed briefly in the distance was a warbler, only a silhouette in the reeds, but another harbinger of spring.

There were the first ducklings too. I only saw one to begin with, then the arrow marks in the water showed where another three were darting in and out of the bankside vegetation. I never cease to be amazed at how quickly these tiny creatures move – all four of them could have fitted on the palm of my hand, if they'd ever kept still long enough.

Just as the towpath narrowed there were two large white shapes on the bank. It was one of the few times I was grateful not to be walking with a dog, and wondering whether to squeeze by the swans or not. We've never had a problem with them, but I was always afraid we might.

These were a cob and pen, sitting close together, each with their head tucked under their wings. As I approached each bird raised its head to stare at me, the long neck uncoiling sinuously over its back. I was judged not to be a threat and the necks curled down again, the heads disappearing until I reached the birds, when bright alert eyes watched over their wings at my passing.

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Monday 16 April 2012

Near the common a stretch of maize edging a field had been cut back. The ground was grey with wood pigeons, who stood virtually wing to wing as they fed on the fallen dried kernels of corn. Dark specks on the fringes of the flock showed that a few rooks had spotted the feeding opportunity.

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Tuesday 17 April 2012

I have recently passed several roundabouts that have been a joy to see now that formal bedding plants seem to have fallen from fashion. My favourite roundabout was the one where the turf was already covered with the soft yellow of cowslips, bending this way and that in the breeze.

My preference was sorely challenged by one I passed later on, where a group of cherry trees was in full bloom over a carpet of Madonna blue and green, where speedwell threaded through the grass. And later on I will gaze with pleasure on the neatly trimmed lavender bushes that circle yet another roundabout – drought permitting, of course. Perhaps rosemary will soon be used too – with its hotter Mediterranean background it may benefit from sunnier weather here.

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Wednesday 18 April 2012

My new window on the garden has given me a much better view of what happens out there. Today I saw a family party of sparrows on the lawn. They had started in a scattered fashion in the flowerbeds beside the apple tree, pecking at the dry ground, possibly for seeds from the lavender that was recently cut back.

Then they advanced in an amazingly straight line across the grass, pecking industriously at the scattering of food I had put out earlier, then all taking a tiny, almost synchronised, hop forwards. The smartness of the line didn't last long, then the group had broken up again, busily investigating the pots around the pond or bathing in the pools of the waterfall.

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Thursday 19 April 2012

The new-born foal lay at her mother's feet, just beyond a bush of flowering gorse in the New Forest. This was the first I've seen this year. She was brown, with just a white blaze on her head, but her mother was pure shining white against the fresh green of the emerging hawthorn leaves behind her. Two more brown mares stood behind her on either side of the gorse bush, so the adults formed a triangle with the new mother at the apex.

They watched without concern as my collie and I passed by. I looked back over my shoulder to see the little foal struggle to her feet and begin to suckle, while the three mares remained motionless. She has been born at a hopeful moment, as the recent heavy rain has already encouraged fresh growth, especially in the grass.

As we walked on over the sodden ground, with water lying in pools and filling the hollows, there came another signal that spring really has come. I wasn't sure at first that I had heard the distinctive call, so I paused and there it was again. The sound of a male cuckoo announcing his presence in the valley below the plain. Over the next hour I heard the call three more times.

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Friday 20 April 2012

As I walked over the New Forest plain I saw a low movement in the trees edging the open grass. I just had time to see the sandy form of a fox move lithely into cover. This was late morning, so I presume a vixen has cubs to feed. Maybe the rain has also made it easier for her to find meals for them, if it has encouraged more activity in small mammals and birds.

She obviously spotted me before I saw her. And so did the stags once I was under cover of the oaks. Their coats are the milky brown of the tree trunks, so I was almost upon the first before I saw it watching me. This one seemed to be on his own, but as he was a young male I guessed he might be part of a bachelor group. I was some yards further on before a movement behind a thicket of holly brought me to a quick halt.

Another young stag appeared, watching me with big eyes before opting for caution and bounding off. This one had pricket antlers, so was a year or two old. As I skirted widely round the holly two more stags emerged to follow their companion without undue haste. Both of these were still without antlers.

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Saturday 21 April 2012

Bronze-green oak tassels and burgeoning leaves lay scattered across the turf of the New Forest plain, brought down by the wind and rain. Pairs of thrushes ran in busy spurts, like clockwork toys, across the open ground. The grass was threaded with colour from large mauve violets and Madonna blue milkwort.

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Sunday 22 April 2012

The small feathered body bounced and fluttered on the road in front of me. I slowed down in the car, and avoided the stunned blue tit, but there were no stopping places and it was too fast a road to just stop. There was nothing in sight in front of me, but I guessed the bird had been hit by the last car to go past.

I drove on guiltily, wishing I'd been able to stop and at least lift the little bird onto the verge to give it a slight chance of survival. A short distance further on I passed another small body, this one squashed flat, its tail feathers stuck up in the air, and the red breast patch identifying the remains of a robin.

When I came back an hour later there was no sign of the blue tit on the far lane of the road. I hoped it had really been undamaged, just stunned and able to fly off. But nearby under a hedge was a magpie. I tried to console myself with the thought that if he had grabbed the small bird off the road, at least his youngsters would be fed. But the thought lurked in my mind of two mates somewhere, a blue tit and a robin, whose early territorial and mating efforts had probably gone to waste. And whose young might well not survive.

But two young birds at least have been born in and near my garden this week. I found a pigeon eggshell under the yews beneath the leylandii beyond the end of my garden. And just outside my front gate, some distance away from the laurel hedge, was a blue robin eggshell.

Bertie and Bella may also have nested, but I've seen no recent signs of either building or feeding. She appears quite frequently on the lawn now, which was not her habit at this time last year when she was nest building and sitting on eggs.

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Monday 23 April 2012

I have a pair of robins in the garden, and one, the male, I think, has followed Bertie the blackbird's example. Whenever I appear at the back door Bertie flies down almost immediately for his mealworm fix, but if I glance round the ground and bushes it isn't long before the robin appears as well. A single starling has also joined the cognoscenti, approaching me if I appear in the garden.

I think both of these birds were last year's youngsters, who cautiously shadowed Bertie's babies last year, watching first their placid expectations and then their vocal demands being met with mealworms. Now they too have  the courage, or the need, to present themselves for feeding.

From time to time over the last few days I have seen the male robin feeding a female, who also came for a short spell to feed from the ground in his company. I watched, puzzled, one afternoon as he weaved backwards and forwards, his head thrown back, through the stems of lily of the valley, which towered over him. At one point he sprang up to the bird table and peered down, then returned to the ground. He twisted through the stems again, then suddenly leaped up to skewer a fat grub in the cup of emerging leaves on one plant. This delicacy wasn't for either his mate or his baby, it disappeared in one gulp down his own throat.

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Tuesday 24 April 2012

Early this morning I walked down the garden and saw a huge baby blackbird sitting on the garden table. So Bertie and Bella, the back garden blackbirds, have expertly concealed their nest and their brood feeding. This baby has appeared ten days before we saw the first one of theirs last year, and this baby is bigger. I thought last year's youngsters appeared in the garden while they were still very small as the result of disturbance around their nest. I'm not aware of any problems like late cutting back this year, so maybe it was a deliberate policy last time – if not, it appears to be now, perhaps because last year's first babies thrived so well.

The robin has been taking mealworms away from the garden for a couple of days, although there's been no sign of his young. The starling has been taking mealworms since yesterday, so also has babies somewhere. He saw off a new starling today in a brief skirmish right under my window, with a noisy flurry of wings and beaks, and the intruder on his back for a loud second under the incumbent. The local starling brethren may have been alerted by the sounds, because half a dozen descended soon after.

So I know that's four kinds of avian babies in and near my garden. Blackbird, robin, starling and wood pigeon. And I've seen new courtship in both the adult robins and wood pigeons.

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Wednesday 25 April 2012

Sometimes movement in my garden seems to freeze. A robin perches in the willow above the pond, his red breast patch echoing the brightness of the wallflowers below the flowering forsythia. Bertie the male blackbird sits above the robin, his bright yellow beak dulling the pollen emerging on the catkins. Stan, the newly christened male starling, sits beyond them. The goldfinches, the delicate dandies of the garden with their laced black tails, rest for a fraction of a second on the nyjer seed feeder that hangs from one of the tree branches.

The baby blackbird was sitting fatly on the garden table again first thing this morning, his wide beak dominating his squat fluffy body. His timing was immaculate as noisy power saws indicated cutting back beyond the bottom of the garden.

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Friday 27 April 2012

Dartmoor's appearance has barely changed since I was here last month, but as I drove towards the moor gate above the cottage I saw some ponies in the distance, and among them were a few tiny foals.

Tirn, my elderly collie got out with me at the moor gate and lingered over the smells among the gorse bushes before setting off purposefully up towards the tor. The gorse and heather to our left had been burned off since our last visit, in what must have been among the final swaling of the winter.

There is no sign of new bracken growing around the cottage, nor of the bluebells, in an amazing contrast to this time last year, when we came here a couple of weeks later in May. Then the slopes of the moor were freshly green with new grass and bracken growth, and the neglected pastures around the cottage were a haze of blue.

The little valley below the cottage was almost unchanged too, with just a few more primroses in flower, and the only tree leaves to have emerged were those on a sycamore sapling. But the stream flowed faster and fuller, the crystal clear water tumbling over and round the rocks. For the first time I saw water pouring down the small waterfall beside the cottage, racing down in a frilled white cascade to join the stream below.

Tirn managed the walk up to the tor well, especially as he'd already had several outings during the day. He did show an interest in taking the short cut over the slope past the ship-like rock that stands alone, but in the end he wanted to go up to the top on our old route. He was ahead as we crossed the grassy summit and went down over the flat rock, and picked up speed on the downhill stretch, finally insisting on walking up the last steep incline to the cottage.

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Saturday 28 April 2012

It was as if we've never been away from Dartmoor as we woke up to the sort of fog that we experienced most of the time we were here in March. It still hung heavily when I walked up to the far tor on the ridge above the cottage.

I was glad that I knew the route well enough to find my way, for not only is it easy to lose a sense of direction, but landmarks that I know well looked strangely different in the greyness. Hawthorns are twisted by the wind into distinctive forms, but in this weather when they loomed out of the murk their shapes seemed either strangely insubstantial or else more sharply defined, almost larger and more overwhelming.

The rock masses are weathered into unusual figures, whose solidity was softened by the drifting wisps of mist, changing the shapes. So on this most familiar walk I found a new man in a cap looming up unexpectedly, and passed under the prow of a strange ship, surging up over the granite waves that billowed beneath it.

Colours are more uniform in the fog, but there was another swaled patch of blackened earth alongside the ancient driftway that links the tors here. Looking down from the ridge I saw patches of almost luminous silver lichen marking the virtually invisible rocks. Tiny pinpricks of scarlet showed on some of the silver grey lichen, and closer inspection showed these were the tips of tiny lichen stems, like the vivid comb on top of a cockerel. More subdued was the tawny edging on the new green bilberry leaves, which are just beginning to mark the stones and turf.

The fog masks sounds out, so what I heard most was the light dripping of moisture onto my hat. Occasionally, on the lower slopes, there was the bellow of a calf calling for its mother. But the sound of larks, so pervasive a few weeks ago, and audible from time to time yesterday, was almost absent. It was only while I was on the ridge that I heard one singing, the notes piercingly clear.

And as I returned towards the cottage I heard a cuckoo calling from the valley.

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Sunday 29 April 2012

We woke this morning to rain thundering onto the roof and lashing the windows. Lichen-covered twigs littered the lawn as tree branches were lashed by the wind. The sound of the brook was louder than I've ever heard it, and looking over the garden wall I could see the water overflowing its shallow banks, spreading out around the trees.

When I went down to the valley later on I found the waterfall shooting its flow well out over the rocks, Friday's frilly white edging on crystal clear water turned to a frothy cascade. Further along the brook the cows were coming in from the open moor to shelter here, the best cover for some distance. On the slope above the brook a solitary ewe sheltered under a hawthorn, and her well-grown lamb was standing under a neighbouring bush.  

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Monday 30 April 2012

The bird table in the front garden of the Dartmoor cottage had fewer visitors than last month as I watched it over breakfast today. They were mainly blue tits, with an occasional great tit, marsh tit and coal tit, and a single short appearance from a nuthatch. Even the squirrel only came occasionally.

He has taken a new approach to the nut feeder, curling himself round it to nibble at the contents. His tail curves round too, giving the feeder a strange fur-rimmed appearance, but the tail doesn't touch the feeder; he seems to use it like a rudder, to help his balance. Most of the time he was foraging through the bare branches of the ash trees that grow along the rim of the little valley. When he rested for a moment in these, his tail hung down, an exact replica in dark grey of the long silvery green tuft of lichen that hangs further along, blowing in the breeze.

His dexterity became more obvious than usual as he trotted along the tops of the branches, curled underneath them to explore interesting bark crevices, ran up and down the trunk, took flying leaps from one branch to another, his legs spread out to improve his attempt at flight. Once he descended into the hawthorn his approach changed. He ran to the ends of the slender branches, using them as a springboard to catapult him further down or on to the next bush in the garden. He spent more time exploring the long grass of the lawn, using his paws and nose to part interesting tufts, than he did on the bird feeder. The grass at the foot of the stone front garden wall was particularly engrossing, and he wove his way in and out of bramble clumps, avoiding the prickly stems. He seemed quite unaware of, or uninterested in, another ground visitor.

I only became aware of it when a very slight movement at the foot of the crocosmia stems caught my eye. As I watched, a small dark brown bank vole shot briefly out of cover and back in again. It made similar appearances from time to time, and then it ventured out more fully, scuttling from one clump of plant stems to another, and then hastily back again.

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