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.

June 2012

Friday 1 June 2012

Large shapes lurked among the green strands that streamed over the tawny gold pebbles. Although the river was flowing full and fast the sunlight made the water crystal clear.

This was a chalk river, home to rainbow trout, and some of the fish were extremely large, their pink belly stripe very obvious. All of them pointed upstream, moving slightly in the current to keep their position.

It must be a good time for trout, as further along I saw silvery mayflies skimming across the water. Here and there were widening circles left by a surfacing fish. Just once I saw a fish leap right out of the water and splash noisily back again.

The surface of the river was sprinkled with tiny yellow seeds, like feathery umbrellas. They floated past, like gold sequins on the silken water, surrounding the pair of mallards that came drifting down on the current.

I didn't recognise the seeds and couldn't work out which trees they came from. The river was overhung with willows of all kind and sycamores, whose papery aeroplane seedpods were developing at the top of stalks that still had a few flowers at their bases. The river here was part of an ornamental garden, and was also overhung with trees like planes, whose fruits hung like mediaeval maces on dangling chains.

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Saturday 2 June 2012

The young robin stood in the shallow lower pool of my garden waterfall, watching the sparrow splashing water over its body. Soon the robin baby was imitating the sparrow, wallowing briefly in the water and spreading his tiny wings so that each separate feather gleamed in the sunlight. He rapidly tired of this and went down to explore the lower rocks over which the water runs into the pond, before returning to sip some more water.

In the upper pool was a blue tit, splashing the water lightly over himself. He is the only one of his kind who visits my garden and first appeared when the new window was being put into the garden room, landing on the sill outside. He seemed to peer curiously in, but I'm sure he was really inspecting the frame for insects.

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Sunday 3 June 2012

The black and white cows had pushed through the frothing cow parsley that screened the front of the dip, and settled comfortably on the ground, sheltered behind by a ring of hawthorn trees. It was restful rural scene in black, white and green.

The dip is, I suspect, an old dewpond, which still fills up with water in very wet weather; then it's a pair of wild mallard that occupy it.

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Monday 4 June 2012

The wood pigeon rose up steeply, a long twig clenched in his beak, almost to the top of the fir trees beyond the bottom of the garden. He and his mate must be nesting in them for the second time this year.

I often hear them moving heavily through the branches, and see them using the trees. One bird enjoys the topmost tip as a lookout, although his weight bows the slender stem right over into an arch. In fine weather both pigeons like to sit a little lower down, using the branches as a narrow platform for sunbathing. They especially enjoy this first thing in the morning when they can bask in the sun and watch my back door for signs of activity – in this case, putting out their food. 

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Tuesday 5 June 2012

The Welsh poppy's fragile yellow-petalled head drooped over, bouncing gently. Underneath it protruded the buff rear of a fat bumblebee, whose legs were already dusty with pollen.

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Wednesday 6 June 2012

Bertie, my back garden blackbird, is at last taking away food for a baby. Watching him carefully it was clear that the nest is definitely not in my garden this year. I've wondered before if magpies nearby have driven the blackbirds to nest further away. I wonder too if the presence of starlings, nesting on the old pigeon site in the golden cypress, creates too much conspicuous activity in the garden, which could attract predators.

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Thursday 7 June 2012

A slight movement in the flow of water betrayed the presence of a wren in the middle pool of my garden waterfall. He was quite confident, bathing briefly before probing into the bed of the pool.

Standing for a short time in profile on the edge of the pool he showed off to perfection his needle-like beak, narrow light eyebrow and trademark cocked tail.

I've caught brief glimpses of him in the bushes during the last two weeks, but this was the first time I saw him clearly for a length of time.

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Friday 8 June 2012

The wind was whipping across the open New Forest plain, tossing the tree branches into a constant whirlpool of movement. Against all the green the underneath of the whitebeam leaves flashed silver, creating flickering beacons of gleaming brightness.

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Monday 11 June 2012

Many of the trees lining the common's lanes had cows sheltering under their spreading branches. The cows took two approaches to the driving rain. Some stood as far under cover as possible, generally close to the trunk, chewing rhythmically as they stared stoically ahead. Others were right at the edge of the tree canopy, stretching their long necks upwards to graze on the lower lime leaves, rather than down as usual to feed on grass. It was a perfect demonstration of how the neatly manicured tree line is achieved in pastures.

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Tuesday 12 June 2012

The long grasses of the meadow rippled slightly in the breeze, a rich green spattered here and there with the colours of wild flowers. Pink orchids pierced the greenness like oriental minarets, low patches of rust-red fat hen looked like the sites of bloody death, yellow rattle had fat seed heads that were not yet ready producing the eponymous sound that heralds cutting time.

White hogweed umbels foamed around the edges of the meadow, and tiny white woodruff stars threaded the mown path we were following.  

Tirn, my elderly collie, plodded determinedly downwards, down to the salt marsh on the tidal river that smelt of the sea that he loves. This was as close as we can go now – running and playing on the beach is too much for him, but beloved old habits still overwhelm him if we get as far as the sand.

So today, his fifteenth birthday, we sat on the edge of the marsh, the meadow at our back. He lifted his head, sniffing the scents, his eyes narrowed as he stared across the quiet grey water, following the passing of a little egret. Whether or not he heard the call of the oystercatcher wasn't clear, but it was there, and the ringing cry of the sandpiper.

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Wednesday 13 June 2012

Under the creamy panicles of elderflowers one of the slender new branches is coated in blackfly. They appear every year on the tree in my front garden, in just one place, and every year the ants find them.

Individual ants make a long march up and down the rugged bark of the trunk and branch. They go backwards and forwards repeatedly to sip the honeydew that hangs in opaque drips from the aphids, glimmering like tears in the green shade.

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Thursday 14 June 2012

Bertie, my back garden blackbird, now comes repeatedly to be fed with mealworms when he sees me around. If I'm busy I often become aware of a concentrated glare and look up to see him within arm's distance. If I don't notice him fast enough he'll march right up to me. He is a careful father to his brood, breaking up the mealworms into tiny portions which he crams into his beak.

Bella, his mate, is overcoming her caution, and letting me see her at a distance, and flying in as soon as I put food out. Speed has become more essential now the starlings are on the scene. They can hoover up the mealworms industriously in a very short time. Bella's approach to feeding the babies is different. She crams her beak with the full-size mealworms and flies off, presumably to break them up in a more private spot.

The only time I've seen Bertie do this was today when I gave him tiny chunks of cheese. Last year he turned up his beak at cheese, this year he fell on it and took several pieces round to the courtyard where he broke them up on the brick path. Noticing this I cut my chunks even smaller and carried them in my pocket as I gardened. Bertie was back time after time, virtually standing on my foot as I sprinkled just enough for him to fill his beak each time.

I wonder how he's acquired this taste for cheese – presumably from another garden where it's more frequently on the menu.

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Friday 15 June 2012

Walking down the steep northern slope of the downs I had the contours of ditch and rampart outworks of a hill fort on my right. Head-high hawthorn bushes stood along the top of the ramparts, spaced out like sentries. The steeply curving dips and rises are often home to sheep who crop the turf, but leave the tall slender feather-tipped grasses alone. Today these dipped gently backwards and forwards, creating translucent waves in the sunlight, first shimmering silver, then red-tinged foam.

In this delicate moving veil there was one solid shape, frozen in mid-stride. I faltered in my own stride, calling the dog and stopping to stare upwards. The black nose and eyes were striking in the dark russet fur, and I was close enough to see the sooty rim of the pricked ears.

The fox stared back at me, remaining motionless, not fooled by our stillness. It was only when we stepped behind the screen of a nearby bush that she disappeared, not as I'd hoped, upwards or downwards where I would have seen her go. She must have melted away through the fence behind it as soon as she felt unobserved.

It was mid-morning, after a night of heavy rain, so I suspect she was an adult fox, out searching for voles and mice to feed her cubs, which must now be weaned.

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Saturday 16 June 2012

The water that filled the dips of the New Forest plains was iron grey under the scudding clouds, its surfaces rippling beneath the wind.

I walked slowly here, keeping an eye on the cattle in the distance while my elderly collie sniffed the gorse bushes and inspected the grassy tracks. Considering how much rain there has recently been the ground was not as wet as I expected, if I steered clear of the ruts and pools.

Closer to the village was the Shetland pony herd, with tiny foals in pale brown and patchwork colours. One was fascinated by us as we stood nearby watching him, and he gradually edged closer and closer until I could see the soft whiskers on his chin.

Last year, though, this area was full of forest ponies and their foals, whose development we watched from tiny wobbly-legged babies to long-legged adolescents racing around in the sunshine.

This year I've barely seen forest ponies here, but don't really know why.

Last year, though, this area was full of forest ponies and their foals, whose development we watched from tiny wobbly-legged babies to long-legged adolescents racing around in the sunshine.

This year I've barely seen forest ponies here, and hardly any foals. This probably reflects reduced breeding with fewer stallions allowed on the forest. They are normally out in the late spring and early summer, so that foals would be born in the following spring. But the ponies are increasingly not being bought at the regular sales, or sell at a price as low as ten guineas, so the commoners who own them need to restrict the numbers born until demand improves again.

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Monday 18 June 2012

The baby sparrow fluttered his wings, blurring their edges, crouching and opening his beak as a parent pushed in mealworm pieces. There are four babies in my garden, who tend to follow their parents around closely, waiting for food.

They were born in the house-martin box that was put up on the back of my house a few years ago. Sadly, it hasn't housed a house martin, but happily the sparrows made use of it the year after it went up. That year they nested on top of it, but now they live inside the two synthetic mud cups, shaped like a large prehistoric bra.

It's their faces I see peering out, their babies I heard chirping at feeding time a few weeks ago.

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Tuesday 19 June 2012

It looked like a crumpled dried leaf in the middle of the stony track leading between high hedges down to the canal. But it was extremely still in the breeze, so I went closer – to find a tiny speckled robin baby with a comparatively huge beak who refused to look at me. I couldn't leave him there with a car coming in the distance so I used my straw hat to nudge him gently towards one of the hedges. At first he squatted quite still, ignoring my intrusion. Then he suddenly glared up at me and scuttled forward, darting round suddenly to go to the hedge in the rear. I might have persuaded him to move, but he certainly wasn't going where I wanted him to. Nonetheless he was out of harm's way, and as very few cars come down here I hope he will avoid being run over in the next few days.

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Wednesday 20 June 2012

Two young blackbirds have appeared in the garden. The first was a bedraggled bundle scurrying across the lawn. At first I thought he must have fallen into one of the waterfall pools.

Then I saw the second, larger, sibling cautiously sipping the water, and tumbling into the shallow middle pool. Once there he stayed, shivering water over his body and shaking his feathers until the lower pool was spattered with drops as if it still rained.

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Thursday 21 June 2012

The noise was amazing, a shrill piercing screaming coming from the tiny wren perched in the jasmine in my back garden. She stayed for a few seconds, her whole body quivering with the effort she was making, presumably to summon her youngsters.

A little later there was a baby wren sitting on one of the flag iris leaves, bending it down towards the water of my back garden pond. When he flew off I went out to see if I could spot him again.

As I walked down the brick path baby wrens rocketed out of the shrubbery in all directions, until they were perched on the fences and bushes, shrilling indignantly on all sides of me, the sound filling the garden. When I counted I could see four, but it sounded as though there were at least two more out of sight.

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Friday 22 June 2012

It was very still and quiet on the New Forest plain. Everywhere was green, the open ground that stretched away in front of me, the bushes that broke the flatness ahead, and the trees that rose in the distance. The colour was only broken by the creamy white of the cows that lay among the bushes or stood in front of the trees.

It was like walking into one of those idyllic rural scenes beloved of eighteenth century French landscape painters. I almost looked around for the classical ruins that should have been part of the view.

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Saturday 23 June 2012

It was a tiny bird, smaller than the wrens I see in my garden. I only saw it for a fraction of a second, but recognised it instantly as it shot from the lower pool of the waterfall into the overhanging poppy leaves that shield the base of the willow trunk. There was a bright yellow and red flash on its small brown head – a goldcrest.

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Sunday 24 June 2012

The greater crested grebe kept its head down as it moved across the lake into the wind. The baby trailing it was less aerodynamically positioned, its neck at full length, its total attention on the parent it called to imploringly. Nearby the other adult sat on the most recent eggs on a nest in the reeds, her own head coiled down over her breast.

This wasn't the only family scene on the lake. A similar one was being enacted nearby with the coots, one of which was sitting on her nest at some distance from the grebe. At first I only saw the adult out on the lake feeding babies, but a flash of white caught my eye in the dead tree branches that had tumbled into a heap on the far bank. The nest of dried reeds was only a shade darker than the bleached branches, so would have been hard to spot without the signal from the coot's white head patch.

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Monday 25 June 2012

One of the young sparrows in my garden has oddly muted colouring, his wing feathers almost white, his body a pale café au lait shade. He's very distinctive among the other babies, who already look very similar to the adults.

These are house sparrows, but I also have the grey-headed hedge sparrows, dunnocks, who come to feed among their cousins. And as I watched the little flock feeding on my terrace I saw that one little speckled brown bird was actually a young robin.

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Tuesday 26 June 2012

The tiny bird was vigorously ruffling its feathers after a bathe in one of the waterfall pools in my back garden. I sat at the terrace table watching it move through the pyracantha branches above my head, close enough for me to reach out a hand and pick it up. It was only when he bent his head to wipe his needle-like beak on the bark that I saw the pale yellow and red crown he wore above his soft baby plumage. A young goldcrest. A noisy young goldcrest who began to make a faint, but penetrating, call like two pieces of wood tapping together. On and on this went, even when he was out of sight. He was still calling, from the berberis on the far side of the garden, when I went back indoors to work.

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Wednesday 27 June 2012

A black-feathered scimitar shot low through the air past the house, rising sharply above the terrace table where I sat in my back garden. This scout was followed by the entire swooping flight of swifts. The speed of their appearance and rush of their passing, directly under his beak, startled Bertie, the blackbird, as he sat on the corner of the guttering at his evening vigil.

Here and there a swift broke off to check the courtyard or the side path, but more and more of them were drawn upwards to my new swift nesting box. The attraction was the recording of swift calls playing on a CD outside an upper window. Seeing the immediate response, which I hadn't quite expected, I'd made sure the window was firmly closed. The slot in the box that I hope will shelter them is a couple of feet further along under the gutter.

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Thursday 28 June 2012

Eight starlings queued across the terrace for their turn at the water bowl. If it could be called queuing, as they were standing in a loose straggling line. But there was no pushing and shoving, each bird came forward one at a time to perch on the bowl and sip up some water.

Most of the birds who visit my terrace mingle quite amicably, away from the busier feeding spot on the lower lawn. But there was recently an unusual display of bad temper from one of the starlings.

The sparrow who passed underneath his beak uttered a squeak of fright when it stabbed at his back, between the wings, pining him briefly to the ground. The sparrow flew away, seemingly unharmed, as soon as he was released. I didn't see that he had intruded more than usual on the starling, so am not sure what caused the brief aggression.

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Friday 29 June 2012

My head was bent as I walked into the wind blowing strongly across the open New Forest plain, otherwise I may not have seen it. A familiar shade of red in the sodden cropped grass. A dozen or so tiny sundew plants growing flat across the ground, their round green leaves covered with tiny red hairs, sticky enough to catch and hold tiny insect prey.

My attention was distracted from the plants by the distinctive call of a curlew, virtually just over my shoulder. Turning round cautiously I saw one of the birds glide down to the open ride just ahead of me, close enough for the white rump and curved beak to be clearly visible. Seconds later another two curlews were circling above it, calling loudly. These two landed nearby and ran towards the first. They had almost reached it when all three birds took to the air again and flew in a wide curve down to the marshy area in the valley below.

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Saturday 30 June 2012

For a second it was a like a Georgian silhouette, two blackbirds perched on a low branch beneath the bulk of the juniper. They were just slightly darker than the shade around them, and the only other colour came from the white flowers of the orange blossom, lit by the sunlight beyond the tree.

The birds faced each other, giving me a side view that was totally motionless – until the baby opened his beak and Bertie leaned forward to stuff it with mealworm pieces.

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