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.

August 2012

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Two marbled white butterflies meandered over the pink clover and purple selfheal in the turf of the pasture. The bank that ran down steeply to the lane was threaded with purple knapweed and pale blue scabious, mingling with wild carrot, whose white umbellifers have an intriguing central dark floret. Some of these flower heads had already turned into filigree seed reticules, and near them were the red-tinged spearheads that appear when the selfheal flowers are over.

A chaffinch sang the same four notes repeatedly from his post on the topmost tip of a hawthorn, whose ripening haws were already turning red. He seemed to be pointing the way to me, up towards the hillfort ramparts in the distance, whose slope was covered with white sheep, like bobbing clouds on a green sky.

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Thursday 2 August 2012

The fragrance of meadowsweet filled the tiny water meadows, where the flowers grew in such profusion they seemed to send a creamy white wave spilling over the greenery. Only the sound of flowing water betrayed the tiny river that meandered past below overhanging willows, its clear waters barely visible under the leaves.

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Friday 3 August 2012

Five mares cantered past us on the New Forest plain, with a slender grey foal in their midst.

A little later we saw them again, grazing out in the open. The foal was curious about Tirn, my elderly collie, and was keen to come up close to meet him. Eventually I had to wave my hat at him, but that barely deterred him.

The foal stopped to watch my antics, then decided it was time for a snack. The first mare he approached lifted a hoof warningly when he tried to suckle, and he skittered away quickly. His own mother was a short distance away, quite unfazed by the incident, as he trotted up to her.

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Saturday 4 August 2012

The colours are less vivid, but still there in the meadow leading down to the Beaulieu river, with fewer flowers in the mix. Now it's knapweed heads that give the royal purple tinge, patches of deep pink bell heather as a reminder of the nearby forest heath, paler mauve spreads of thyme that also thread through the mown path that goes down to the water. A band of creamy white meadowsweet edges the meadow as it reaches the encircling trees, and fills the air with its scent.

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Sunday 5 August 2012

In the afternoon there was a magpie feeding on the lower lawn of my back garden, his colours very vivid in the overcast gloom. A pigeon was feeding nearby, and Bertie, my back garden blackbird, came up to the terrace with a sparrow for mealworms. So the magpie's appearance didn't seem to bother them at this time.

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Monday 6 August 2012

The pale felted leaves and slender off-white flower spires of wood sage could be easily overlooked among the vibrant summer colours of the lane verges. But today they stood out among the almost total green of the lane, growing out at a sharp angle from the bases of the oaks, as if holding out the flowers to be appreciated.

And one appreciative visitor had found them. A slender bee hung from one flower spire, dragging it downwards as he deftly probed one tiny flower after another.

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Tuesday 7 August 2012

Now my evening garden doesn't echo to the sound of swifts calling overhead. They've been diminishing in number for a while, and from the end of July I haven't seen them every night. They regularly disappear at this time, a sign for me that we've reached the beginning of the end of the summer. Just as I resigned myself to waiting until next summer until I hear them again the evening air was suddenly full of their screaming. It was only a faint outburst, from a passing flock as they wheeled high overhead, but it was a distinct bonus.

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Wednesday 8 August 2012

As I worked this morning my eye was caught by a stirring under the heucheras in my back courtyard garden. Watching closely I saw a pair of fat mottled haunches waddle through the stems, shaking the leaves they held up. Yet another very big frog, but one of the darker variety. His slow passage through the corydalis and marigolds, under the elecampane and comfrey, was marked by the shivering of the more fragile leaves and the dropping of a few yellow petals.

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Thursday 9 August 2012

A fine silken sheet hung from the miniature fir by the pond, staked to the ground by several single strands. The early morning sun lit the cobweb, showing the miniscule particles of dust that had blown onto it overnight, and the slightly larger remains of insects that had been trapped in it.

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Friday 10 August 2012

We were minding our own business, Tirn, my elderly collie and I, as we pottered along a wide ride through a New Forest heath. But the dark grey colt who emerged from between gorse bushes, stood staring out of his long-lashed big eyes. He was curious about Tirn, and keen to meet him.

Now that Tirn is so old and slow the colt was easily able to catch us up. In the end I had to wave my hat in front of him to shoo him away. Even then he just stood still and gazed at me in surprise.

Tirn throughout was quite oblivious of what was going on. He's now very deaf, so approaches from behind aren't heard. And his effort goes into keeping going, while his pleasure comes from tracing the scents of those creatures who've been this way before him.

The open grass plains of the New Forest are now hosting a large number of foals with their mothers. I only saw a few very young foals earlier in the year, so it is an unexpected surprise to see so many juveniles at the long-legged coltish stage.

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Saturday 11 August 2012

It was too hot to take Tirn down the open meadow to the Beaulieu river. We sat above it in the shade of an oak, looking down to the water. The air was filled with the scent of honey from a nearby lime, heavy with flower. The only sound was the humming of the bees who were harvesting the lime pollen.

Tirn was looking across the glade behind us and grew suddenly alert, his eyes bright and watchful. Turning carefully I saw nothing at first. Then a pair of deer, young fallow in golden coats, edged out of cover to graze the grass in the clearing beyond the lime.

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Sunday 12 August 2012

Fragile pale blue heads of harebells lined the pasture edge at the top of the downs. They bent and swayed under the breeze that teased them, but always sprang quaveringly upright again on their slender stems.

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Monday 13 August 2012

The sheep were sprinkled across the lower slope of the downland pasture. Some were walking in a steady line from the bottom of the slope up towards the gate that opens onto the cart track. Others clearly thought they were missing something and began to drift over to join them.

But as we walked uphill the sheep closest to the cart track were oblivious to the movement. They lay peacefully ruminating among yellow hawkbit flowers. With their eyes shut and an air of quiet contentment, they looked just as though they were enjoying the sun while it was out.

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Tuesday 14 August 2012

Dark shapes stalked through the long grass on the hillfort spur of the downs. First a glossy head, then a short body swinging along like a rollicking sailor, then a big grey curved beak. The rooks were industriously probing the ground, advancing in straggling lines across the fortifications. It was surely too dry for them to find earthworms, but perhaps the turf sheltered snails and leatherjackets.

A sudden alarm caused the birds to take to the air, shooting out of the grass, first in twos and threes, then in larger numbers. At last there were over two dozen, not flying in formation like a squadron, but going independently in all directions away from the cause of the scare on the bridle path past the old lime quarry.

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Wednesday 15 August 2012

At the foot of the downs, the small fields spread out in a patchwork of shapes. The hedges edging each shape were very dark green, but otherwise the gold of ripening wheat predominated. Here and there a bright green strip at the side of a field marked a wide headland, good for wildlife cover and food. Paler green marked strips of sweetcorn, planted to provide cover for the pheasants. They'll be using it soon, as the first poults were released this week.

We came across a flock of the scraggy youngsters straggling across the path, confused by their sudden freedom. A little later the gamekeeper was slowly driving uphill, a trailer laden with straw bales behind his Landrover. The bales will be stationed at feeding points, the feed corn scattered over them to keep the birds relatively close, and well fed.

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Thursday 16 August 2012

It was a pale but distinctive form flitting through the willow that grows over my garden pond. One of my favourite birds, a long-tailed tit. This was a youngster who paused to struggle with a long green caterpillar, rolling it over a branch before finally gulping it down.

The tit spent some time searching up and down the branches, perhaps hoping for another large juicy titbit. He came once to the chaenomeles by the garden door, almost close enough for me to touch him. His white head patch was vivid against his paler pink and grey livery, and his feathers were ruffled by the raindrops he knocked off the leaves above.

For a short time, while the sun was out, this youngster was joined in the willow by three others. They probed the bark, flitted backwards and forwards, then rested for a while in the upper branches, their heads just showing amongst the light green leaves, their bodies hidden.

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Friday 17 August 2012

In the New Forest the heath where we walk has been gradually hazed with purple. And when I looked closely at the colour I saw that it was composed of the brighter magenta of bell heather flowers, the bulbous pale pink of cross-leaved heath flowers, and the sprays of common heather that vary from white to pale pink.

It was a windy day, so the delicious honey scent from the heather wasn't hanging heavy in the air, as it sometimes does. It only reached me in elusive draughts, triggering my memories of previous years when I've been surrounded by it for miles as I walked.

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Saturday 18 August 2012

A wren perched momentarily on one of the rocks edging my back garden pond. I saw him in silhouette, his trademark tail cocked at a perky angle.

Nearby a sparrow flattened himself on the roof of the shed, squirming and fluttering to find a comfortable spot. He fluffed and spread his wings, basking for a short time in the sun.

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Monday 20 August 2012

Bertie and Bella, my back garden blackbirds, usually come to be fed as a double act now, maintaining a constant exchange of warbling tweets and chirps. Bella has overcome most of her caution in my presence and will coming running up the garden when she sees me, although she still darts off temporarily when I scatter the mealworms.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Bleached grass arched over the path up to the downs, almost blocking it. Beneath its canopy knapweed was forced outwards too, sending its sprays of purple flowers across the turf like bursts of tiny fireworks.

In the fields below this path the ripening wheat was golden in some fields. In others it had already been cut, leaving pale stripes across the stubble. And the combine was still busy, clouds of dust floating across the field where the wheat was being cut down.

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Wednesday 22 August 2012

Sitting in the garden in the late afternoon over tea I was startled by a plop in the water beside me. In very hot weather I have a deckchair under the willow beside the pond, where I often hear the frogs croaking in the heat.

It was unusual for a frog to be returning at this time, so perhaps it needed refreshing in this heat. On a very hot day a few summers ago I found a frog spread-eagled across the grassy slope beside the pond. I didn't disturb it, thinking it would move when I had passed by. But when I came back later, there it still was, flatter, with glazed eyes. Without much hope I fetched the watering can and sprinkled the frog. Half an hour later it had gone, I hope into the pond and not into the mouth of a hedgehog or bird.

Today the first plop was followed during the next thirty minutes by another, then another and even one more. Four frogs, all returning during the heat of the day. The last swam from one end of the pond to the other, his passage marked by the movement of the bright green duckweed that I must soon remove.

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Thursday 23 August 2012

In the heat I sometimes walk Tirn, my elderly collie, down the lower part of the lane that leads to the downs. Although the winding lane itself is narrow, it is edged with wide grass verges, brimming with dog's mercury and nettles, coloured with blue scabious, purple wild basil flowers and the furry seed heads of greater celandine.

Flocks of sheep would have been moved this way a hundred years ago and more, up and back from the downs. And the double hedgerow that bounds the lane to the west is old enough to have seen them go.

There is a wide space between the two lines of bushes that form the hedgerow, enough to shelter a man on foot or horseback, although it is overgrown now with brambles and littered with fallen branches. On both sides of the space the line of bushes has grown tall and spindly, some seeding more prolifically in the gap and on the verge than others. Elder and hazel predominate, but there is spindle, dogwood, field maple and hawthorn, with European ash growing tall above all the others.

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Friday 24 August 2012

The purple flowers held their heads high in the low ditch, looking curiously like lavender from a distance. Closer inspection showed they were betony, their colour reflecting the sheets of heather that spread out in purple profusion at the far end of the lane.

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Saturday 25 August 2012

The cart track up to the downs has a line of trees to the north, screening the steep slope above. Old man's beard is entangling the shrubs beneath the trees, its tendrils winding through the lower branches and reaching up for the upper ones. Its tiny white flowers blossom in such profusion that they seem to foam over the bushes and the verge, submerging them completely.

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Monday 27 August 2012

I spent some time in the garden this evening and was struck anew with how clever Bella, the female blackbird in my back garden, had been with her nest site.

For the last four years I have been carefully clipping the elaeagnus that grew under one of my side fences, shaping it into a neat hedge about a foot deep and eight feet high. The hedge is sheltered by a magnolia stellata and a spindle, with fruit bushes in front of it.

I had hoped it would provide good nesting possibilities for a robin, or other small bird. But Bella saw its convenience and safety and built her nest there so neatly that I had no suspicion of what she was doing. She and Bertie, her mate, could make an unseen approach from the shrubbery below, or along the top of the fence under cover of the clematis that grows there.

To reach the pond and terrace where they expect me to be in the early summer mornings, or the arbour where they can find me at fine-weather tea times, they could come along the ground without being seen from above. I nearly always saw them making a ground approach this summer, and rarely saw them going in flight across the lawn, which is partly why I wondered how well their nesting season was going. Given the presence of a breeding magpie pair in the fir trees beyond the garden, Bella's choice of nesting place couldn't have been bettered.

She must have sat on that nest, sheltered from full sun and rain, watching the gooseberries and white currants ripen, with the scent of the nearby roses around her. I hope she enjoyed the scent – I know she enjoyed the fruit when it was ripe, and probably introduced Bertie to it.

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Tuesday 28 August 2012

Further up the cart track that leads to the downs the bushes and trees that edge the slope already have their berries. They are hard green knobs still on the whitebeam, rose and hawthorn, ripe red clusters on the guelder rose. But it is the rowans that bear the crown of glory at this time, their slender forms weighted with clusters of bright orange berries.

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Wednesday 29 August 2012

The deep pink pine trunk stretched up and up to its canopy high above, like an umbrella with a very long handle and very tiny top. At regular intervals smooth patches interrupted the giraffe-like pattern of the bark. These were where branches had fallen as the tree had aged. As I looked up on one side, each of these patches had a neat hole bored into it, turning the tree into the avian equivalent of a high-rise apartment block.

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Thursday 30 August 2012

A movement in the grass ahead caught my eye as we walked up the cart track to the downs. The sunlight was shining through the translucent pink ears of the tiny rabbit crouched on the side of the track, below the tall grass of the verge.

The little creature didn't move at all as I got nearer. By the time I was close enough to admire the sleekness of his fur I knew what I was going to find.

His bulging eyes were sightless, hidden by the closed lids. Myxomatosis.

The virus that causes the disease was deliberately spread during the last century as a means of controlling the rabbit population. It's a slow and painful way for any creature to die.

When I was a child I remember someone I was travelling with reversing the car back down a lane, after inspecting a rabbit crouched beside it. It lay there supine, listless, its face and eyes swollen, and all he could do was put it out of its misery by running over it.

It's always been a shame to me that I can't do that when I come across them. I try to relieve my conscience with the knowledge that many rabbit populations have now developed a resistance to the virus.

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Friday 31 August 2012

Sheep looked up curiously as the wires pinged repeatedly in the pasture fence. Young pheasants were zooming through them, creating a discordant music, as my elderly collie and I plodded slowly up the track.

Many years ago, on his first walk here as a young puppy, this was where he initially encountered pheasants. A flock of newly released poults came rushing down the cart track towards us. They came to a halt and turned back when they saw Tirn, forming a tight flock as they meandered up the track in front of us. They weren't particularly hurried or concerned, but a bit muddled about what to do and where to go. More and more birds joined in, until there were at least a hundred.

Tirn, pacing slowly behind them, turned a puzzled gaze up to me. He was used to cows and chickens, these birds and their behaviour was new to them. It was with great relief that he saw them turn off into the upper field, so that he could speed up in his urge to find out where the track led to.

It was a great relief to me that he behaved so well with the pheasants, then and later. The only interest he ever had at a later stage was standing and staring at a spot where one lay hidden as I approached. The pheasant, of course, had frozen as he appeared, but couldn't tolerate me as well and would explode noisily upwards as I arrived. I was never sure if Tirn enjoyed the explosion, or was warning me that the bird was lurking out of sight there.

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