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.

March 2012

Thursday 1 March 2012

There was a terrific swirling in the water of the garden pond this morning, but only one pair of mating frogs to be seen. The other waiting females had, however, left their posts, so they may have been clasped in the arms of other males elsewhere in the pond.

Friday 2 March 2012

A pond tragedy met my eyes when I went down the garden this morning. A faint paleness was noticeable on one of the shelves, the one the frogs prefer. I squinted in, shifting in the sunlight to work out what it was.

Then I realised, with a shock of sorrow, that it was a pair of dead frogs, still clasped together. They were half squashed under a rock that must have fallen on them, perhaps accidentally kicked down by one of the others. They have a surprising strength in their legs, which is perhaps greater than ever at the height of their breeding season.

Saturday 3 March 2012

I was working at home during the morning, and was continually disturbed by a pinging against the large kitchen window at side of the house. When I went to investigate I found a belligerent female blackbird flinging herself time after time against the glass.

It was Bella, the female from the back garden territory, who was perhaps letting me know I was late putting out mealworms. I dutifully trotted out with the container, and my suspicion seemed to be confirmed when Bertie, her mate, flew agitatedly up from the shrubbery virtually into my arms.

Serene in the belief that the problem was solved I went back to work. Then, ping, ping. The female was at it again. I thought that perhaps she could see through the windows on the opposite side of the kitchen and was trying to get to the far part of the garden. I draped the small windows there with towels and scarves and went back to work.

Ping, ping. When I looked out of the big kitchen window, there she was, perched on a thick stem of the ivy that covers a flat roof nearby. I went out and tried to shoo her away, but she wasn't at all concerned about me although I didn't then think she was Bella, who is very used to my company. She had attracted Billie, the front garden male blackbird, who sat on the fence watching her, perhaps drawn by curiosity at the disturbance on this more flexible boundary between their territories.

At last I realised she was attacking her reflection in the glass, so with some difficulty I draped a wide sheet over the upper part of the window. This seemed to be effective, until a little later on I heard the familiar tapping.

Now Bella was trying to scare off her reflection in the back hall window, so out came more drapes, until the rear of the house was settled in dim gloom. For some time she refused to leave the hall window, puzzled and suspicious about the drape. But her aggressive dashes towards the glass were broken off at the last minute as she veered aside.

This narrow side part of the garden has been for some years either a disputed area between the front and back territorial pairs, or an area of uneasy neutrality. It may be that Bella thought that another, strange, female was trying to butt in here. At one point, she was crouched side by side with Binkie, the front garden blackbird, perhaps encouraging her to repel the perceived intruder too.

It may be that Bertie and Bella are thinking of making another nest on the thick undergrowth on the flat roof. They first built one there two years ago, losing their entire brood early one morning immediately after the babies hatched. Billie and Binkie tried it late last year, nesting in the climbing hydrangea closer to the front garden. When danger threatened their babies, the youngsters were at least old enough to be moved out to safety around the garden, front and back.

A small amount of building work was done at the back of the house last week, opening up more view onto the garden. The brick cutting was quite noisy, and the builders came along the side of the house, so I wonder if this could have caused such an extreme reaction in birds staking out their territories.

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Sunday 4 March 2012

The kitchen and back hall still had their windows draped this morning, blocking Bella's reflection. Peering under the drape before I got breakfast, I saw her laying in wait for the intruder, crouched belligerently on the ivy and glaring at the window.

Later in the day she turned her attention to the front hall window, and found that the intruder was appearing there. In spite of the dull greyness of the sky there was a very clear reflection in it of the climbing hydrangea with a blackbird perched in it, so Bella was determined to drive off the elusive intruder. Fortunately she seemed to have learned that the glass was hard and impervious, so again she veered off from contact at the last minute.

It came on to rain, to my relief, and then to snow, with great wet blobs, and Bella retreated. I wasn't sure whether this was due to a vanished reflection in the gloomy light, or because she didn't want to get wet and cold. I suspect the first possibility was most likely, as she was far too determined to give up for anything less.

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Tuesday 6 March 2012

From the hall and kitchen windows I can see a pair of blackbirds flying busily around the creeper-covered flat roof outside. They use this area as a pathway, and dive under the roof, but they are at the moment so noticeable that I can't believe they will successfully raise a brood here.

I can only hope that they are using this side of the house as a route to a site they've identified beyond it. Still, so far I haven't spotted any signs of actual nest building anywhere, and both partners are still regularly out on the back lawn feeding themselves.

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Friday 9 March 2012

Dartmoor was very muted in appearance as I drove across the high moor towards the cottage. A cold torThe bracken on the slopes had faded, the grass was a dull yellowy green, the holly berries had nearly all gone. There was little sign of animal life, only an occasional pony near the road.

But as Tirn, my collie, and I got out at the moor gate to walk over the tor the larks were singing, and meadow pipits were perched like striped avian fairies on top of bushes and rocks.

Down in the little valley below the cottage the stream was flowing with a lovely sound, the water deep and clear in the pools, falling over the rocks in graceful pristine curves. Many more primroses were in flower below the front garden wall, soft velvety yellow, a sure sign of spring. The air here was filled with the sound of birds singing, twittering, piping, shrieking staccato alarms.

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Saturday 10 March 2012

On the farm below the tor there are new Devon Ruby calves, a heifer a few weeks old and a bull calf born a few days ago. They and their mothers shared the same small field for the first time after the later birth, and the mothers were initially very wary of each other.

But within three days there were the first signs of bonding between them, with the older cow licking the face of the younger one. She then went on to lick the little heifer, who was lying next to her own tiny bull calf.

The mothers moved off to graze together and I watched the calves until they became aware of me. The young heifer leaped up and away after the cows, but the tiny bull calf wasn't quite so quick and his mother came up promptly to check what was happening and summon him away. His slender legs are longer than the heifer's, although his body is a fraction of her size. He's still a little uncertain on them, but when he was a safe distance from me he gambolled around his mother with a coltish grace.

The other cows of the herd were housed indoors nearby, but most were out in the attached yard, including the calves from last year. The young bullock was a very nice shape, and very curious, wanting to come up to visit, but not quite sure enough to do it. He was bright too, learning to help himself as a very young calf by supplementing his early milk feed – his mother had very little for him, so when her herd mate was feeding her own calf the bullock slipped round to the other side of her and feed off another teat.

He and last year's heifer will be separated from their mothers tomorrow, as the cows are due to drop new calves at the end of April. The youngsters will be put into the field on the other side of the lane, while the mothers will be kept indoors for a couple of days, so if the weather stays calm and sound doesn't carry they won't hear each other calling.

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Sunday 11 March 2012

In the field at the top of the Dartmoor lane were some of the first of this year's lambs, either pure white or pure black. Most were already sturdy youngsters, but as I walked past I saw there were two newborns with an ewe near the far hedge.

Pausing for a while to watch them I saw that one youngster was already steady on his legs, keen to follow his mother and suckle frequently. His sibling, though lay watching, finally bleating pitifully to his mother. She called back to him, then moved away, forcing him to stand and follow her on his very wobbly legs. Time and again he fell, and at last he decided to settle more comfortably and wait.

His mother moved back towards him, then veered away, still followed confidently by the bigger lamb. The mother looked at the weaker one, and moved even further off, leaving him alone.

I wasn't sure whether this was a deliberate ploy to make the more fragile lamb move and get used to his legs. By the time I came back in the late afternoon I couldn't identify the little family among the others, so hoped that the weaker lamb had finally managed to feed.

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Monday 12 March 2012

I was sitting at the top of the Dartmoor garden this morning in warm sunshine listening to the throbbing medley of bird song that filled the air. The chorus was intermittently pierced by the hammering of a woodpecker in the trees above the brook.

A male chaffinch with a sleek grey head was perched in the curving branches of a beech, repeating at brief intervals a short chord of notes, high and clear in the garden. Then came a robin, driving the chaffinch to the garden boundary, where he flitted upwards through the branches of a silver birch. Prominent in the bare branches of the birch were huge twiggy clusters, like the nests of a monstrous bird trying to impress a mate with his industry. These obscured the chaffinch until he slipped out to the end of one of the middle branches to look down over the neglected pasture to the fields below.

Once he'd seen off the chaffinch the robin was happy to pop down to the lawn to probe the grass, before flying back to his preferred stand in the beech to exercise his own thrilling tune.

Both these small birds have short, rather fluttering flights, travelling between closely neighbouring bushes and trees, or flying low across the lawn to the other side. The pair of long-tailed tits who visited the garden shortly after this little scene flew higher, with a longer dipping flight, making low peeping calls.

Once they were sheltered in the branches of a berberis, the long-tailed tits pale pink and grey plumage blending beautifully with the bare bark and thick grey-green lichen, one of them sang its clear song, like the silvery notes of a tiny bell.

The black cruciform figure of a solitary crow crossed the garden at the height of the tall firs in the corner. His slow deliberate upward wing beats took him out of sight into the beeches behind the house, where he announced his arrival with loud harsh cawing.

Beyond the hedge a buzzard swirled upwards, in what seemed a lazy leisurely flight, his echoing call ringing across the lower pasture. Further down, along the line of the brook, a heron flew steadily from east to west along the line of the water.

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Tuesday 13 March 2012

The narrow Dartmoor lane went steeply downwards, winding round tight corners in the curves created centuries ago by the flocks and herds belonging to the tiny cluster of farmhouses half way down the lane or to farms in the village in the valley below. The animals were moved up to graze on the moor in the spring, and down in the autumn to the sheltered fields, or out along the old drove road on the fringe of the moor to the market towns further south.

On one of the corners in the lane was a cluster of rocks, thickly covered in green moss, which must have witnessed the passing of animals and people for centuries. A mossy roundhouseFrom the rocks grew slender oak trees, hardly identifiable at this stage with their branches bare as their trunks were almost completely patterned with lichens. These came as dark velvety streaks, crinkly silver waves and huge pristine white plaques, creating an uncommon piebald style that won't be so conspicuous once the leaves come out on the branches.

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Wednesday 14 March 2012

In the farm below the tor the Devon Ruby cows have been separated from their last year calves, a heifer and the chunky bullock that watched me so confidently earlier this week.

It was the bull calf who called constantly for his mother from his new field. His cries echoed up over the moor to the cottage until he lost his voice. Even though she could hear him, she remained unperturbed. Very soon now she'll give birth to another calf and the little bullock will have a brother or sister, who will need his mother's milk. These cattle are breed stock, so the youngsters spend at least a year with their mothers, still suckling occasionally even though they have been weaned for some time.

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Thursday 15 March 2012

Walking back to the cottage this afternoon I passed a field with black Dexter cows. There was one Dexter calf and also one that seemed to be a Devon Ruby, although it suckled from a black Dexter cow. I couldn't tell whether a sport would throw this colour, or whether this little calf was a fosterling. Both were similar in size and build, perhaps a month old, and each was close to the hedge, but at different points, and reacted differently to me as I walked past. While the possible Devon Ruby stared back at me as I spoke to him, clearly interested in conversation, the Dexter watched cautiously before nervously moving away.

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Friday 16 March 2012

This morning I saw that the ewe I'd watched earlier this week still had her two lambs, so the weaker one did keep up with her in the end. He was still more fragile than his sibling, but both were considerably sturdier than they were a few days ago.

They were bounding around today in close companionship in their Dartmoor field. But neither was as lively as the youngster in the middle of the field, who had springs in his legs that sent him shooting up from the ground, leaping onto rocks, bouncing across the grass. As soon as he saw me he stood very still, staring, then advanced confidently to see what I was. When I moved slightly he rushed away, to peer around a flowering gorse bush to see what I'd do next, before he lost interest and decided to join his mother.

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Saturday 17 March 2012Devon track

The earthen track led between two Devon hedges, sheltered from the worst of the wind by the trees growing on the tops. Gnarled tree roots ridged the upper edge of the hedges, while bright green moss grew thickly over the stones that formed the walls. Shiny navelwort was studded here and there in the moss, occasional ferns arched outwards and bleached strands of ubiquitous moor grass fluttered in the breeze.

Local animals had left traces in the wall. Vole holeThe small round holes marked the runs of bank voles, looking as if a broom handle had been poked repeatedly into the moss. A tiny well-worn track led to a narrow gap under the tree roots, with a glimpse of light from the field beyond.

More conspicuous were the wider earthen tracks over the walls and down their sides, showing prick and scratch marks from claws. These were badger highways into and out of the fields where the animals could search for worms and grubs in the turf. Badger highwayLast night's rain will have made this kind of foraging easier, as the earth worms at least would be closer to the surface.

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Sunday 18 March 2012

Badgers are not the only creatures to enjoy earthworm feasts after rain. A triple row of freshly turned molehills ran along the path through the Dartmoor field, like a Lilliputian attempt to construct a miniature formal garden with alleys and avenues. The pallid remains of an earthworm lay across my path. It had either come to the surface to evade pursuit by a mole, or had been picked up and dropped by an avian predator.

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Wednesday 21 March

The tall stone hedges of the narrow Devon lane were draped in ivy, glistening in the sunshine. My eye was caught by the specks of red, one on each individual leaf over a wide area, like spattered drops of blood. Closer inspection showed they were ladybirds, basking in the heat.

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Thursday 22 March 2012

I've woken to some mornings of heavy Dartmoor mist while I've been here, which have generally disappeared to allow the sun to shine through. But sometimes, even when the mist had cleared, there were grey smudges against the sky. Once it was like fingerprints smeared across the yellowy-pink bands of the sinking sun in the west, but most often it was towering plumes against clear blue skies.

This is almost the end of the swaling season, Swaling the gorse on the high moorthe months when sections of the moor are burned to remove intrusive gorse and allow grass and heather to regenerate for grazing animals. The most impressive view I've had of this so far was on a very misty morning when the smoke was invisible. As I crossed a ridge there on a distant slope in front of me flames leaped up, looking unexpectedly bright and ferocious against the blank greyness that surrounded me.

Swaling happens on a rota basis over a period of years, so that stock can enjoy more and better grazing. People benefit fortuitously from the vast displays of purple flowering heather that spread across the slopes later in the year.

Blackened stretches of moor are witness, for a time, to this work long after it has been completed. But the areas I saw being swaled last year had just the odd blacked gorse stump poking through a layer of bright new greening.

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Friday 23 March 2012

Packing last night soon alerted Tirn, my collie to imminent departure, and by this morning he was despondently watching the car being loaded. He has had a wonderful time here, determinedly walking at least four times as much as he can anywhere else, and sitting in the garden enjoying the sunshine. He has visited his favourite places too, several in Ashburton where there are many doorways he expects to enter, and one particular pub garden pub where each table seems to have its companion dog. Still, Tirn continues to appreciate the return home to the house he has known for nearly all his life, where he eagerly checks out what's been happening in the garden while we've been gone.

And I was welcomed by other creatures immediately we got home. As soon as the back door was unlocked and opened Bertie the blackbird thumped down on the step looking expectantly for his mealworms. And the small black cat, who used to visit our front garden regularly, turned up as the unloading of the car finished. Although she doesn't favour us with her presence very often these days, it almost seems she keeps an eye on us, noticing when we're away and coming to greet us when we get back. The dog has never appreciated this, but she's learned to keep to the front garden and leave the back one to him.

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Saturday 24 March 2012

There are at least four lots of frogspawn in the pond, still at the preferred northern end, and no signs of any frogs in the water. In previous years there have been many more females laying, until the spawn was more than a foot deep at their preferred part, with a few latecomers forced to leave theirs further out in the water.

Hardly any tadpoles and little frogs have resulted from these overwhelming masses, so it will be interesting to see if this year the much smaller amount of spawn results in more tadpoles.

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Tuesday 27 March 2012

The air around the rookery in the common's oak copse was full of sound and movement, with constant cawing as birds flew in and out, or called warningly as they shifted to peer down at the ground.

The trees grow out of a shallow irregular declivity, Celandineperhaps left after gravel extraction, perhaps only created during World War II when the common was used by American forces. The ground around the trunks glittered with yellow celandine flowers, embedded in gleaming green leaves like star patterns in a wide carpet, subtly highlighted here and there with the small crinkled leaves and soft pink flowers of dead nettles.

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Thursday 29 March 2012

There was a haze of green over the tightly packed trees as leaves opened in the warmth of the recent sunshine. The pale pink flowers of wild cherries stood out in places, but there was an emerging billow of white in front of the trees as the blackthorn came into bloom. Its surging munificence looked like spray thrown up in front of the towering bank of green behind it.

And this was all alongside the dual carriageways I was using, and had used on the way back from Dartmoor. It was the result of highways planting many years ago, of mainly native English species, such as guelder rose. The quick-growing blackthorn was much used in similar circumstances during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although then the boundaries it marked were the newly enclosed common lands.

But the road planting has resulted not only in the bringing of countryside beauty to our travelling, and perhaps a deadening of noise to people living nearby. It has created a relatively undisturbed wildlife habitat, most often signified by the hovering of a kestrel over patches of grassy bank.

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Saturday 31 March 2012

Sitting over tea in the rose arbour at the bottom of the garden I had the fir trees directly behind me. Heavy flapping of wings heralded a wood pigeon launching itself cumbersomely out of the branches. At the same moment, another landed awkwardly, pushing its way into the thick branches, which shook to mark his passageway inwards. I wonder if they plan to build their first nest in here, rather than in the single yellow fir beside the western fence they normally choose.

It may be that Bertie and Bella will try here again too, as they did last year with almost disastrous results when it was disturbed. I see them both flying in here from a number of directions, but both of them are still regularly about in the garden feeding and I have yet to see them carrying nesting material, so maybe building hasn't started yet.

A soft gentle cooing filled the still air. As I glanced up, there was no sign of the pigeon making the sound, but a collared dove sat on a branch just above me, enjoying the warmth of the sun.

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