We woke to brilliant sunshine and a clear blue sky, which shone down onto a crisply frosted garden. The birds were busy on the front garden feeder. They were mainly blue tits, with an occasional marsh tit. Once the robin came, red-breasted on his green mossy rock, to survey the scene.
But not one small bird was in sight a short time later when there was a flash of blue beside the wall. A creamy head appeared, streaked with black, above large sharp eyes. It was followed by his elegant buff-coloured body. The jay had appeared from the drive below the garden, breasting the wall just below the bird table. For a minute he perched among the ivy on the stones and boulders, scanning the garden, his black moustache-like markings giving him a cartoon villain appearance. Not a creature moved, until a flash of scarlet announced the arrival of a greater spotted woodpecker.
For an instant, the two birds surveyed each other warily. Then the woodpecker bent his head over the nut feeder and the jay flew away to better feeding elsewhere.
The sky and the moor around us were quite dark as we drove past the high black mass of the tor. Lights glittered like vast constellations below the fringes of Dartmoor's high land. Towns were spread out there, bright shapes on a living map.
Above us the cloud cleared and stars sprang to life. And a real constellation lit our way, the Plough hanging dramatically over our destination, the cottage far from anywhere. Once there, our late night walk around the garden was lit by a gently glowing moon, hanging like a Christmas bauble in the branches of an ash above the brook.
There was a line of unusual shapes on the slope of moor above the Dartmoor cottage. The colours on the slope are muted now, soft grey rocks, faded bronze bracken, muted green holly trees. But it was as if a string of deep russet boulders had been strung below the rocks of the tor, only just distinguishable in the sea of bracken around them.
Pausing with a spoonful of porridge half way to my mouth I stared hard at them, wondering what they were. Then a slight movement caught my eye as a black shape moved out of cover. And then I knew. The cows were grazing here, their predominantly russet colouring virtually disguising them.
It was uncannily silent as I walked above the site of the mediaeval village. The westerly wind blew cold in my face, and made the crumpled bracken shiver, but otherwise there was no movement. On the far slope, below the distant tor, green tracks wove like veins among the crumpled bronze pelt of a huge slumbering beast, half hidden by the soft mauves and browns of the woods in the valley.
The tor stood beyond a field of rocky outcrops and isolated trees, its height guiding me over the down nearby and through the outcrop of rocks. Scenes here would probably be familiar to viewers of the film War Horse, transmuted to the cinema from the book of local author Michael Morpurgo.
A steep lane winds down into the village, twisting sharply round corners and past ancient long houses. In the grounds of one a flock of white geese huddled together in a gateway, perhaps wondering whether to venture into new pastures or await the coming of Christmas.
Tiny white hairs were caught in the barbs of the wire fence above the stone wall around the garden. Just a tiny sign, but an indicator of the badgers who come this way at night, leaving a scent trail that Tirn follows eagerly on his morning potter.
There are two enormous setts nearby, each about a quarter of a mile away. One is carved into the hillside, marked at a distance by the flattened trodden earth around it. One is much lower down, a veritable mound, almost as high as the gatepost beside it.
As I walked Tirn towards our laden car, ready to leave the moor, a flock of fieldfares flew across the ground in front of us, alighting briefly before flitting off again. The holly trees, which were so plentifully laden with scarlet berries last winter, are scantily loaded this year. The fieldfares seem chiefly to be feeding on the ground, so perhaps the very wet weather has improved their chances of finding worms and snails.
Beyond them, at the foot of a tor, ponies sparred, a grey chasing a brown round and round their feeding fellows. Occasionally they reared up, head to head, and at last another mare joined in the chase. When I turned back to follow the action I saw that the tables had been turned, the two brown mares chasing off the white one who had instigated the action.
Bella, the female blackbird, seems to have succeeded in chasing Bertie, the male, from my back garden. She waits in the branches of the willow below the terrace when she knows I'm in the garden room but Bertie doesn't put in an appearance at all now. Bella certainly has great determination but she doesn't have his personality. She never meets my eye, or lingers beside me when I'm working in the garden. And I can't imagine her coming to find me in the house if she hears my voice. I do miss Bertie, whose character is very similar to his father's.
The copse of trees was frozen, its wispy branches and tendrils hanging in stiff stillness. Not a thing moved, and the only creatures in sight were two pigeons, perched on trees at either end of the cluster. And they were motionless too, hunched into their feathers, trying to keep warm against the cold when the ground was too hard for them to search for food.
Bertie, the male blackbird from my back garden, has appeared in my front garden, in retreat from the bullying of Bella, the female in the back garden. He stands conspicuously on the path waiting for me in the morning when the curtains are opened. And he flies down to the lawn beside the path when he spots me returning home, either on foot or in the car.
But Billie, the original front garden male, has also definitely returned to his territory. So there are some standoffs between the two males, but they're not as vigorous as the spring and summer ones were. Perhaps Billie remembers that Bertie used occasionally to let him feed and bathe in the back when times were hard with all their youngsters.
The little hedgehog in my back garden now comes up onto the terrace in the early evening, snuffling around the borders, looking for slugs and snails. He's not at all fazed when Tirn, my elderly collie, goes out and the lights flash on.
It's hard to tell whether the hedgehog is putting on weight yet, but whenever I see him I put out a small amount of dog food. He isn't too keen on the special hedgehog food I bought, which seems to be mainly cereal.
It was a silver world with frosted hedgerows and rime-crisp grass crunching underfoot. Furrows stood in iron-hard ridges in crystallised fields, which were fringed with groups of rigid trees.
Birds were active in small groups, congregating where the sunlight had melted the iciness. First one black shape flitted past, then another, as blackbirds flew low across the lane. As I approached they went from the softened leaf litter in the verge to the hedge, flying up as if synchronised in departures seconds apart. Crows marched across the patch of weak sunlight that lay across a field, the birds stabbing repeatedly into the ground. But of smaller birds, tits and finches, there was not a trace.
It was definitely a red kite, but something was wrong, it danced and jerked around as if caught in an invisible line. Then I realised. It was a very realistic red kite shape, attached to a pole in the centre of the field, endlessly moving in the breeze.
As a bird scarer it seemed to be most effective. There wasn't a real bird in sight on the soft green of the burgeoning wheat. But down the slope out of sight a huge flock of wood pigeons were working through the leaves of the winter beet. Even further down the dark shapes of rooks patrolled the furrows between the beets, repeatedly stabbing down at the ground.
The trees on the downland ridges have all lost their leaves now. They crown the ridges in stark outlines, their uniqueness very obvious as they dominate the starker winter landscape.
It's not only the difference between oak and beech that becomes clear, but also the differences between each tree. How well they have grown, how they have survived bad weather conditions, give the individual trees their own distinctive appearance.
Bertie, the back garden male blackbird, has definitely taken up residence in the front garden now, leaving Bella, the female, alone in the back. Billie, his brother, who used to reign in the front, has challenged him once or twice, but otherwise seems to accept the situation. Bertie, of course, is very prompt to appear when I go out, and perhaps this benefits Billie, who is a little shyer about making his presence known. Certainly the mealworm supply to the front garden has noticeably increased.
Grey wings flapped energetically from all sides of the ivy-clad tree stump. Wood pigeons were forcing their way into the thick creeper, presumably for the berries. As I watched the whole column seemed to have grown wings, and to be shaking ready for take off.
I have an additional Christmas wreath this year, one that has just been hung on my shed door for the birds. Bags of sunflower seeds and peanuts stud the mossy circle like huge baubles, and ribbons of maize rather than gauze hang from the centre. The birds are already busy working their way through the usual feeders, so I hope this will attract their attention too.
At first there were only three white doves trying to settle on the front of the house. One nestled beside a window box in a deep window recess. The others tried the sills in front of window spaces that were long ago bricked up against window tax. But the birds weren't happy there, fidgeting backwards and forwards, turning round and round. At last they flew off, returning shortly to settle on the narrow ridge below the pediment of the three-storey Georgian house.
But other doves came in now, and a few feral pigeons, until more than twenty birds were shifting along the ridge, trying to find a comfortable spot to settle. One pigeon particularly couldn't bear another bird within pecking distance on either side, and kept warning off intruders. At last the majority of them settled down, tucking their heads under their wings.
Through all the kerfuffle the original bird lay undisturbed beside the window box, his presence only shown by a faint whiteness behind the wrought iron screen at the edge of the sill.
Crows sat motionless in the bare branches of the trees that I passed, black silhouettes in a filigree picture. Then suddenly there was a very large shape high up in a tree. It was a heron, its bulk looking oddly heavy in the delicate tracery of the branches.
I didn't realise that herons roosted in trees until many years ago. I stood early one spring on the side of a quay, in a quiet place on the Helford river in Cornwall. It was late afternoon, the tide was out, so glistening mud flats stretched out in either direction, and a narrow channel of water ran in looping swirls through their centre. Small waders scuttled around on the mud, their heads bobbing up and down as they searched for food.
My previous collie, an unusual brindle, stood beside me, longing to rush down the quay steps towards the water. We were quite alone in this rare open space among the stunted oak trees that lined the gentle slopes above the river. There was no sound, and the little birds and the sluggish water were the only things moving.
Then a long shape flew low along the far shore, just above the lower edge of the trees. Just as I recognised it as a heron, it disappeared into the tree cover, appearing a couple of seconds later perched in the bare branches of one of the oaks. I stared at it in surprise, then saw another heron flying in, then another and another. Finally there were about twenty of the birds, a small colony, resting in the trees.
The canal water is high and deceptively still, almost waiting its chance for action. The narrow boats that line it near town are constantly adjusting their mooring ropes. Beyond, the river water is racing and swirling, bursting over its banks in lower places and spreading out over the grassy meadows.
And yet for one mallard drake the heavy rain and rising waters seemed to make no difference. For him, spring was on the way. He trailed a female closely, his head bobbing up and down in fevered mating ritual. At last she flew off and he took to the air behind her, determined to stick close. A group of other drakes clustered by the bank, watching the demonstration, but showed no interest in joining in.
It was an isolated lake on farmland, surrounded by willows, their bare branches tawny yellow in the dull daylight. A few swans grazed on a stretch of grass nearby, their bodies ungainly as they moved on land, long necks stretched downwards.
When I first knew this area there was a winter swannery on a sloping field beside the nearby canal. Year after year swans gathered there in December and January, between 20 and 30 at a time. They settled close together, perhaps for warmth, perhaps for security. They were gleaming white against the green that was beginning to show in the field and the muted brown of the trees that crowned the slope.
There wasn't much noise to warn of their presence, so it was always with a sense of anticipation that I rounded a bend of the towpath in the winter months, wondering if the birds were there. For several years they were, leaving behind a cloak of white feathers on the ground when they finally left in the early spring. But I haven't seen them there now for a long time.
The cottage window was open on the night outside. All was quiet except for an occasional plop as water dripped from the overhanging thatch. An almost full moon rose high above the stark outlines of the oaks opposite the cottage, the lane was wet, but the rain had stopped falling.
I was listening for the sound of the bells from the distant church, ringing out the old year and ringing in the new. And suddenly there they were, rhythmic strokes resounding through the darkness. As they fell silent a tawny owl called from up the lane, another answered from the trees, and then another called from further away.
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