The New Forest was in the grip of winter when we arrived to stay there. The ground was frozen hard and covered with white frost, the puddles were sheets of opaque ice.
Tirn finds this weather hard now, his paws flinching from the cold ground. For him it's rather like walking over prickly holly leaves, painful because arthritis means he can't flex his ankles, so his full weight comes down onto his paws as the pads come into contact with the difficult surfaces. Still, he was happy to be back at the cottage here, keen to explore the garden and the open forest lawn at the end of the lane.
A brook runs along the edge of the garden, meandering through the forest lawn beyond. The cottage resounds to the waterfall below the garden, and today the pool beneath the fall was turned into an eerie bright whiteness, like cake icing, where the spume had frozen. Clear broad icicles hung from one of the rocks like Christmas decorations, and a flat rock was layered with huge ice crystals like an exotic dessert.
I walked along the lane into the nearby village, cutting through a holly copse. Here ponies paused, turning their heads curiously to watch me approach and pass them. Their dark winter coats were thick and velvety, temptingly soft to look at. Their eyes were thickly lashed, and a couple of them had sprigs of holly protruding skittishly from their mouths. I often find plucked sprigs lying on the leaf litter under the trees, and discovered that the ponies leave them there for a day or two to soften before they eat them. How bright is that?
Walking back across the forest lawn this afternoon I saw a bright white bird glide in and land in one of the shallower branches of the brook. Only its white head showed above the banks, but it had been easily identifiable as a little egret.
I first saw one of these birds about fourteen years ago, when I introduced Tirn, my collie, to one of the favourite Cornish haunts of his predecessor. Whenever we arrived after that there was always at least one on the tributary of the Helford that we passed on our way to the cottage nearby. I have come to think of them as one of the spirits of our favourite places, although I have yet to spot one on Dartmoor.
I always see one of these birds here in the New Forest, and last year saw a pair. From being occasional visitors to the country they have now become residents, even breeding successfully, I believe. Particularly seen in flight, when they have a noticeable boat-like profile, and close to on land with their long sharp beak, they are very distinctively members of the heron family.
Here they patrol the brook, usually standing sentinel on the far bank of the main watercourse. Occasionally they perch in one of the isolated trees that grow above the brook. I was never sure how many fish there would be, but obviously enough to attract these birds and also grey herons.
Working in the kitchen is a real joy here, because of the view across the main garden. The bird table with its dangling feeders, is in full view, and the birds can be watched all day.
There is a much wider selection here than I see on Dartmoor, and they cluster thickly on and around the table. There are two robins, fatly rounded like tennis balls as they fluff up their feathers against the cold. I presume they're a pair, although one does occasionally try to chase the other away. Vying with the robins for colour are the bullfinches, two pairs of them. The males' beautiful raspberry-pink chests blend surprisingly well with the russet leaves on the lawn as the birds filter the grass for scattered seeds.
There is a nuthatch here too, his more subdued outfit very clearly shown as he winds around the seed feeder, occasionally descending to the ground to search the fallen debris. The tit family is represented by great tits, accompanied by a greater spotted woodpecker. I can glance out of the kitchen window to be puzzled by a splash of bright red on the far side of the bird table, which turns out to be the rump of the woodpecker clamped against the table's pole.
A green woodpecker often flies up, yaffling, from the tussocky grass of the paddock when we're making our way down to the forest lawn. Coming back along the lane I've surprised a goldcrest in the hedge above the garden, a bird I rarely see, but particularly striking when it's virtually at eye height a hands' breadth away.
The sound of the waterfall fills the cottage here. Normally a gentle murmur, when I woke up to hear it roaring I knew there had been heavy rain higher up in the forest. Looking out of the bedroom window I could see the water shooting out vertically over the rocks, an agitated yellowy colour as it fell into the frothing pool below.
Later I saw a dozen spooked ponies trotting along the forest lawn, speeding up to a gallop to turn up the gorse-covered slope. They came back down at a smart canter, crossing the bridge over the brook in single file, their hooves drumming out a staccato tattoo.
The windows of the cottage were filled with the shapes of the trees, their bare structures like dark filigree against a grey sky. From the sitting room I coul see the brook lined with oaks, their lower branches fallen or loped, the trees tightly packed. But the view through the lawn window was filled with the fan shape of a sycamore, with a distant glimpse of a spreading oak standing sentinel at the far corner of the paddock.
At the front of the cottage hazel trees dominate a scanty hedgerow. Catkins already dangled from the slender branches, adding a new dimension to the dark profile of the tree. This was finished in true woodcut style with the fat profile of a small bird, perched picturesquely on one of the upper branches.
Snow began to fall and settle during the evening, our last in the New Forest for a while, so that there was an inch or so on the ground by bedtime. In this weather I like to sit on the bedroom window seat, wrapped in a blanket, sheltered by the long curtains and watch the garden in the snow light.
This time my vigil was rewarded by a sight of the local fox, following his route through the garden. It was amusing to have this track confirmed, as Tirn follows it as soon as he goes out each the morning, nose twitching above the foxy scent. The fox unerringly detected the peanuts that fell across the lawn when I was filling the feeder during the day. I watched as he dug down without too much effort and retrieved every one, before setting off for the upper hedgerow, an ancient one that winds round the upper edge of the garden.
On the common the rookery had a bird on guard beside each of the deep ragged nests high in the bare oaks of the copse. Occasionally a rook would fly in, a long twig clenched in its beak, to effect repairs caused by the wind and rain. It's those same winds that have littered the ground under the tree avenues with twigs of all sizes and shapes, a ready hunting ground for nesting material.
Bertie the back garden blackbird has been in glossy breeding plumage since mid January. His body is now clad in sleek black feathers, his curving scimitar of a beak is a bright orangey yellow. He has a distinctive white line along the base of one wing, a feature perhaps inherited from his father Freddie, who had one white feather in his own wing.
Bella, his mate, is also looking in fine fettle, conspicuously browner against Bertie's sable spendour. Both of them feed regularly on mealworms spread across the lawn, and now that I'm spending more time in the garden Bertie is always on hand for private snacks. From my study window I often spot him sipping water from the pond too.
I wake up now to the sound of Bertie the blackbird singing in the back garden. Later in the summer I expect that the last thing I hear before dusk falls will be his song, sung with piercing brilliance from the top of the tallest fir tree.
In the front garden the lighter evenings mean that as I have tea by the fire I see Billie, the front garden blackbird, on his perch in the viburnam bodnantense. He sits immobile for a while in the bare branches, a dark shape in their network of twigs, occasionally preening his feathers or wiping his beak on the bark. It's his song I hear at this time, marking the territory he holds here, but it's frequently interspersed with warning cries as he leaps into flight to repel intruders.
As I glanced out of my study window early this morning I saw both the male blackbirds, Bertie and Billie, sitting almost side by side, waiting for the first feed of mealworms to be offered. Bertie, the back garden male, looked slightly shifty, perhaps wondering whether he should see off his brother. Bella, his mate, had no doubts, running purposefully across the path with such unmistakable intent that Billie scuttled off.
Reminded thus of his duty Bertie gave chase too and I saw Bella alter course, dashing through the bushes to head Billie off. As she burst out in front of him, with Bertie close on his tail, Billie decided to leave the garden, flying up and away.
In the New Forest today the J plain donkeys were just on the edge of the trees, pulling down holly stems as well as nibbling the rather browned grass. The various groups seem always to be composed of the same individuals and when I spotted one of this bunch in a glade I knew the others wouldn't be far away.
There are two chocolate brown adults, and one white jenny with patches of different browns, plus a youngster in each colour. Oddly enough the tapestry-coloured mother has a chocolate brown baby, while the tapestry-coloured baby belongs to a chocolate brown mother. The youngsters are now nearly as big as the adults, and their winter coats look thicker.
The donkeys, especially the young ones, are always interested in Tirn, my collie. Today when we stopped for coffee under our favourite oak in a small clearing, the donkeys noticed and meandered towards us. First one paused en route for a roll on the grass, wriggling her spine on the ground and kicking her legs until she rolled right over from one side to the other. This looked such fun that the second adult joined in, then the third, until we were watching all three of them squirming on the ground. The babies looked on curiously but didn't want to participate in this.
Although the weather has turned colder I saw the first pair of mating frogs in my pond today. They were pale bloated figures, almost ghostly under the water, the large female clasped tightly in the clutches of the smaller male. Every year there is a very early pair here, getting into action long before the others appear.
I'm never sure whether laying the spawn earlier gives them an advantage. A late frost would destroy it and other frogs will overlay it with their own spawn – but perhaps that gives it a greater protection from birds. And perhaps water predators like grass snakes aren't around looking for a feast until later on. At least I don't have fish to prey on the spawn from below, and to the best of my knowledge there aren't dragonfly larvae either – another voracious eater of frogspawn.
Blackbirds are normally preceded in my morning chorus by robins, whose large eyes make them more attuned to the coming dawn. So far, though, I haven't heard a robin singing here, although there is certainly one in the garden. I think he's one of last year's fledglings, although I don't know where he was hatched. He was a shadowy figure in the background in the late summer when the last blackbird babies were confidently making the garden their own.
The blackbird pair, Bertie and Bella, were less frequently in the garden last autumn and the robin became more relaxed. He kept me company as I dug and weeded, and listened when I spoke to him, until he too began to appear when I came into the garden. He's more sure of himself now, and I often see him feeding on the lawn when Bertie and Bella are about, still at a distance from them but not in hiding.
We only walked a short stretch of lane to get to the old quarry field, but it was easy to get a picture of events there last night.
A single pheasant tail feather lay across the grass, a subtle light brown, barred with black, unsullied in any way. Did its owner lose it in a territorial confrontation to another male? Or in a near escape from a passing car or marauding fox? I've seen a pair of cock pheasants squaring up to each other in the middle of a country lane, quite oblivious to my car idling behind them, waiting to be noticed. Once they are in battle mode they seem to be unaware of other threats.
Slightly further on, marking the approach to the pedestrian gate into the field, were fresh badger dung pits, at least one of which was used last night. And on the far side of the field more dung pits marked a well-defined track that led up to the hedgerow beside the cherry walk. So badgers were definitely on the prowl last night, with numerous fresh scrapings in the turf under the cherry trees as they looked for beetles and worms. The mild winter must be a mixed blessing for them. Warm enough to be out and about looking for food, but perhaps already too dry for the creatures to turn up the soil easily.
At the rookery on the common there are about forty nests in the oak copse. In one of them I saw a pair of birds fidgeting and finnicking with the inside of their nest under the morning sun. First one of them would stand back and survey it, peering intently into it, then she would stand back and her mate took his turn to assess it.
They seemed to have gone beyond bringing in sticks, and were just fine-tuning it, trying it out for comfort. One bird finally settled onto the nest, looking just as if she were sitting on eggs, although it's too early for laying yet. When I looked round more carefully I saw the same scene being enacted at two more nests.
On the common the wind was whipping the fallen leaves into a frenzied dance. As they skipped around in a tawny flurry there was an occasional flash of deep red. Watching more closely I saw the crisp dried leaves were screening a small flock of redwings. As the birds moved across the turf, searching for worms and insects, their movements seemed almost to imitate the swirling of the leaves.
A flash of chestnut colour caught my eye in the gnarled roots of an overgrown hawthorn in the hedgerow. The roots stood in a knotted tangle on the upper edge of the bank that rose above scrub and spindly trees growing in the sunken site of another old quarry.
The smaller creatures who live here must use this tangle of roots as a pathway. As I watched I saw more fully the tiny creature I'd glimpsed before. A tiny chestnut-furred bank vole sped across the roots, tail spread out behind him, to disappear behind the contorted hawthorn bole.
I've never seen one as clearly as this. The closest I've come to such a sighting before was in an earthen bank at Selborne, on the beech hanger high above the home of the C18 naturalist Gilbert White. As I walked beside the bank, warm in the sun, there were constant tiny movements, just caught out of the corner of my eye. When I stopped to look more closely I saw the bank was riddled with tiny round holes.
Walking more slowly and carefully I took the next voles more by surprise, but even then I only saw a brief glimpse of their shape, rather than just their movement as they popped back down into their runs.
Walking along the lane it was as if snow from a few weeks ago still lingered in patches in the distance. There was a sheen of white under the trees on top of the hill above the grassy slope where there was once a village. Whiteness was picked up again by the immaculate colour of the single swan visible on the canal through a gap in the bushes that lined the bank.
But everywhere there were patches of white. Peeping out from under the dry leaves at the foot of the hedgerow. Strikingly obvious beneath the faded red bricks of the old garden wall of the long-disappeared mansion. Spreading out in the churchyard turf beneath the drying fir cones and lichened twigs that have dropped from the trees above during the winter.
As a child I used to like to lift the heads of snowdrops to look at the whirls of green inside. As an adult I still like to do this, trying vainly to identify different kinds I see in gardens. But I'm really only good at recognising the common version, which is the one I find in the wild.
I heard a frog croaking from the garden pond earlier this week, a male encouraging females to come and find him. Today the sunlight lit the water, revealing five frogs, all females from their size and bloated paleness, staking out positions as they waited for mates to arrive.
There were two preferred approaches. Three of the frogs were plastered against one side of the pond, a short distance from each other, their heads protruding above the water. The other two were crouched down at the bottom of a shelf, one on either side, sheltering beneath plants.
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