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.

May 2012

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Clusters of delicate white wood sorrel flowers draped mossy boulders beside the path that runs along the Dartmoor ridge. At the foot of the walls formed by the boulders were the pale pink striped flowers of purslane, hanging daintily above their shiny green leaves.

Minute translucent ruby-coloured lanterns dangled over the russet-tinged green leaves that covered large parts of the south-facing wall – bilberry flowers. Later on the fruit can be gathered in vast quantities to make jam. I enjoyed some of last year's jam on my scones at teatime – confusingly known as whortleberry, it's sold by the National Trust shops locally.   

Wednesday 2 May 2012

A second squirrel came to the Dartmoor garden this afternoon, a female who approached cautiously from the far end as the male searched the grass under the sitting room windows. He stopped briefly when he saw her, watched her for a few minutes, then took no more notice.

They each fed separately for a while until he squirmed agilely through the clematis stems draping the garden wall and disappeared into the ash tree at the top of the valley. She remained for some time, and not all of it was spent feeding.

I was puzzled to glance up from my book to see her sitting upright on a mossy boulder in the centre of the garden, her paws clasped over her white tummy as she gazed blankly into the distance. She stayed like this for some minutes, then sprang into action, turning and running down the boulder to search among the plant stems at its base. At first I thought she had been watching something moving that she planned to catch, then I thought she might be aware of a predator, but neither of these possibilities seemed right.

And then a short while later I saw her doing it again, perched upright on the bird table, her back to the wind and her tail tip fluttering over her head as she stared off into the distance. Then once again action took over after several minutes of contemplation, and she spent quite a while feeding from the nut holder. She was much less dexterous than the male, and rested frequently. But she also considered other options of getting to the food, checking to see if she could lift the feeder lid and assessing the strength of the string attaching the feeder to the table.

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Thursday 3 May 2012

White drifts of wild garlic are beginning to take over from the more fragile white flowers of wood sorrel and stitchwort in the high Devon hedges of the South Hams.

Other colours have appeared gradually, but now are changing the colour balance from white and green to a more varied palette. Chiefly with huge patches of pink campion and of bluebells, hanging their delicate flowers  down towards me as I pass by, their faint scent drifting around me.

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Friday 4 May 2012

The sound of a cuckoo follows me whenever I walk out from the cottage or sit in its garden. But last May the valley below the cottage constantly rang with the sound of cuckoos, several males calling out one after the other to attract a female.

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Saturday 5 May 2012

We rested for a while down in the valley below the cottage, where Tirn went soundly to sleep with his head in a clump of purslane. There was herb Robert too, a deeper shade of pink, the even more vivid pink of campion, the yellow prostrate potentilla, and white greater stitchwort gleaming against the mossy rock walls. There were still a few primroses and violets here and there in the turf below the garden wall.

Purslane was flowering profusely in pink mats all along the stream. It particularly favours moss-covered rocks under white-blosssomed hawthorns.

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Sunday 6 May 2012

Fronds of bracken are beginning to unfurl on the moor, and bluebells are beginning to cast a faint blue wash over the slopes and in the neglected pastures around the cottage. But by this time last year they had created a scene Monet would have loved to paint.

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Monday 7 May 2012

Grey-hooded jackdaws stalked along the turf of the pasture, occasionally stabbing into the turf with their great beaks. A large black alpaca watched me suspiciously as I walked uphill towards the sheep. He kept pace with me, fortunately at a distance, only deciding I was harmless when I reached the upper gate.

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Tuesday 8 May 2012

From the tor I looked down onto the land below, a predominantly green scene where colour highlights came from white-painted farmhouses and the rusty red shapes of Devon Ruby cows on a couple of the small pastures. The hedgerows were still green boundaries, not yet white with may blossom, and created a patchwork of irregular shapes. The trees screening the church and sheltering the houses have started to come into leaf. The sycamores are fully out, and the other trees are following them, oaks and limes and ash all adding their own shade of green to the scene.

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Wednesday 9 May 2012

There is still a heavy dew in the mornings, leaving sparkling drops of crystal on the grass blades. They glitter too on the spiders' webs that are draped across the ground, like fragile mediaeval clothes hung out to dry. Once spotted, I realise anew how many of these webs I must unwittingly damage on every walk. They shelter tiny holes in the ground where a spider lurks, waiting for prey. I surprised one, seeing a dark shape scuttle away under the damp strands, down into the darker safety of the hole.

There is a different kind of spider, with a different strategy, lurking outside my bedroom window. One of the bottom corners has a leaf caught up in a muddle of gossamer strands. It looks just as if the leaf has blown into an old web. But one morning as I looked out a faint movement attracted my attention, and I saw a spider catching a delicate fly with beautifully patterned fragile wings, that had just touched the outside edge of the strands. The victim was overwhelmed and consumed in less than a minute, the spider withdrawing behind the leaf and down into the crevice between the glass and the frame, leaving only a few long fly legs caught in the web and waving in the breeze.

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Thursday 10 May 2012

From the Dartmoor cottage a wide high window in the sitting room looks out over the neglected pasture beyond. Today a young squirrel sat on the outer sill peering into the room. Startled perhaps when I moved slightly, he raced up the wall towards the roof. Seconds later he was back, clinging upside down to the side of the cottage, his head just poking over the window frame, his big eyes staring in with fascination.

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Friday 11 May 2012

Driving away from the Dartmoor cottage today there was just a faint haze of blue over parts of the moor. Last year at this time the bluebells were in full bloom, creating enormous swathes of indigo blue.

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Saturday 12 May 2012

The garden at home has only changed a little during the last two cold wet weeks. The grass has flourished, the clematis and deutzia have added pink patches to the greenery, while forget-me-nots surge in blue waves around the wallflowers.  The choisya in the courtyard is full of white flower clusters, scenting the air around it, but the wisteria has no sign of colour in its racemes.  The bleeding heart has grown taller and produced more flowers in its warm corner by the brick wall.

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Sunday 13 May 2012

The summer bird visitors were here when I got home. Swallows and house martins, whose first arrivals I saw on my way down to Devon more than two weeks ago. And swifts, who have usually arrived by the 8th, were circling and swooping high up in the sky, their wild screaming the real sound of summer for me.

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Monday 14 May 2012

The birds in my garden have fallen back into their usual feeding pattern when I'm here. Bertie, the back-garden blackbird, comes to the door as soon as he's aware of me. His mate Bella is around a great deal, and is more inclined to approach me than she has ever been, although she never gets very close. There's still no sign that either of them are feeding babies, so the single blackbird youngster I saw on the garden table three weeks ago remains a mystery.

Robbie the male robin turns up with Bertie, and sometimes gets to the terrace first. He is still stuffing his beak with tiny pieces of mealworm and taking them away, so he clearly has at least one baby still around. His mate, who looks identical to my untutored eye, comes to feed almost as boldly as he does.

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Thursday 17 May 2012

Walking alongside the canal my eye was caught by tiny movements where the branches of a willow touched the water. Two tiny fluffy black blobs scooted around, scrambling over the twigs and surfing on the water, now and then emerging into open view. The first moorhen chicks I've seen this year.

Peering across the canal I spotted the nest, carefully woven around three willow stems as they emerged from the water, creating a raised cup that should stay dry. A little later, when I returned, there was no sign of the chicks, but a parent bird was sitting on the nest, presumably warming up her youngsters.

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Friday 18 May 2012

Beyond my garden room window a willow grows above the pond. Its upper branches have been trimmed to a rounded mushroom shape, exposing the network of slender lower branches growing up from a divided trunk.

These silver and yellow lichened branches are favourite perches for the birds waiting to be fed. They sit there as if posing for a 'natural' portrait, the blackbird with his yellow legs and eye rings, the robin with his rounded red tummy and his bright eyes. Occasionally the goldfinch pair come as extras in the furthest branches.

Today when I looked out the leafy cap, now fluffy with catkins, was shaking hard. Just visible when I looked closely was a wood pigeon, pecking vigorously until he pulled out the stem that was obviously just what he needed for his nest. Later, when I went out, I found a litter of discarded stems on the lawn under the willow.

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Monday 21 May 2012

The lanes to the common have become avenues of bridal white hawthorn flowers billowing over the green backdrop, supported by columns of chestnut trees, lit with white or pink candles.  At their feet, cow parsley foamed over the verges, helping to create a predominantly green and white palette in a noticeable contrast to the more varied colours of the Devon hedges that I was seeing ten days ago.

In several places on the telegraph lines edging the lane rows of young starlings were sunning themselves – like the uninvited viewers at a wedding, clad in their everyday clothes.

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Tuesday 22 May 2012

I wasn't the only one to enjoy the hot weather at lunchtime today. As I sat in a shady corner of my garden terrace I was flanked by a bay and juniper, sheltered overhead by a pyracantha that the sparrows particularly enjoying fluttering through.

Bertie the male blackbird came to a low branch of the juniper, singing a few notes before he went down to bathe in one of the shallow pools of the waterfall. Emerging minutes later in a shower of water drops he perched in full sun on a post near the hibiscus. He ruffled and preened his feathers, before spreading out his wings and tail to absorb the heat until his beak was open and his eyes glazed.

By then the only sounds were the hypnotic cooing of one of the wood pigeons and the burbling of water running down to the pond.

The robin remained active, picking up food and flying away with it. Then, audacity itself, he came to the tub full of mealworms and hopped into it to pick out a large specimen for himself.

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Wednesday 23 May 2012

Stan is the individual starling who comes to feed with the robin and blackbird. By the end of April his brothers had discovered his secret food source and came to join him in a noisy group. There were eight of them altogether, definitely more than I want to feed with mealworms on demand. So I've brought the general feeding forward, scattering bird food on the lower lawn before breakfast. Then when I sit on the terrace or at my garden room window my individual birds can come in quietly for a private snack.

Fortunately this seems to be working, as Stan is now feeding four pale grey large-eyed babies. At times they sit in the willow above the pond, preferring to be among the leaves rather than out on the bare branches.

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Monday 28 May 2012

A black feathered dart shot under my nose as I sat peacefully eating lunch at the terrace table. As I flinched, another blackbird arrowed past behind my head, so close I could feel my hair ruffling. Glancing around I saw Bertie, my back-garden blackbird standing on the courtyard path, gazing belligerently after the intruder who had flown over the wall. Bertie was swollen to double his size, his body feathers puffed out, his head feathers raised into a helmet. If a bird could be said to glare, he was glaring.

He has a serious challenger for the back garden territory, and was again chasing him off. The intruder is probably Billie from the front garden, who is making a very determined effort to extend or change his own territory.

For the past couple of days I have seen the black duo flying at speed past the large kitchen window, which overlooks the disputed boundary between the two territories. Billie keeps trying to get in, and without subterfuge this year, and when he is spotted he doesn't go far when he's chased away.

As a consequence Bertie is highly alert, perched high on the chimney or the pinnacle of the roof gable, scanning the area below. When he comes to feed or bathe he is on edge, constantly cocking his head and peering around, only spending a short time on personal maintenance.

If he isn't on patrol or actively repelling Billie, he is proclaiming his territory loudly and musically from the heights at all times of the day. As a result I sit writing this with his song throbbing around me.

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Tuesday 29 May 2012

The sunlight fell across the brown and gold pebbles at the bottom of the pool, and lit the speckle-feathered plumage of the young robin. He perched beside the waterfall to sip delicately from the upper pool, then hopped further down to sit companionably beside the large frog squatting on a flat boulder.

The adult male, unimaginatively called Robbie, was busy all the time collecting food, breaking the mealworms into tiny pieces and taking them to the youngster, who is the same size as his father. Robbie clearly has at least one other baby to feed, as from time to time he flew off to the shrubbery at the far end of the garden. This baby, though, has started following the supplier of food and sat watching me for a while without any anxiety.

No wonder Robbie appears regularly when I'm in the garden. I caught a brief glimpse of another adult robin in the lower branches of the juniper. I wasn't sure at first whether it was another baby, as it gave a cursory dip to Robbie, and he stuffed a mealworm into its beak. But when she flew away I saw she was his mate, looking very thin, presumably from sitting on the next batch of eggs.

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Wednesday 30 May 2012

The common spread out like a field of gold in all directions, bright with buttercups. Here and there dandelion heads stood above the grass, like translucent silver filigree lanterns in the sunlight, ready to send their gossamer stars floating away as soon as the breeze is strong enough.

Today was almost totally still, only a faint breath of wind stirring the hanging lime leaves lining the lanes. The trees of the copse have come fully into leaf, oak and sycamore, completely hiding the rooks' nests.

There was no sight or sound of the birds here, but dark shapes among the buttercups identified the rooks on the ground, wading through the flowers. On one of the mown grass tracks an adult fed a huge baby, who crouched and fluttered his wings appealingly.

In the distance, towards the hawthorn hedge of pinkish-white that leads towards the town, there was the slow flicker of a tail as one of the cows tried to sweep away those irritating flies. Many of them were lying down, barely visible among the buttercups. There a pair of fur-edged ears twitched, there a round flank hump shifts, and that's all that showed their presence.

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Thursday 31 May 2012

The harsh clattering cry made me hurry out in time to see a magpie fly off, leaving the garden temporarily empty of other birds.

Magpies first put in an occasional visit here in 2010. In 2011 they built a nest in the far end of the fir trees beyond the garden, but it's only this year that their presence has become so noticeable. I am afraid that we've been added to a regular route of theirs, as the magpie was here yesterday too.

That may be another reason why Bertie, my back garden blackbird, is so alert. Recently, I saw his mate, Bella, standing awkwardly on the edge of the terrace, head twisted back as she scanned the surroundings. Suddenly she shot away, and a few seconds later a magpie stood where she had. The sudden exchange of a small black bird to a large black and white one brought home the enormous difference in size between them.

I wonder too if the presence of the magpies and their young in the fir trees has effected the blackbirds' breeding programme. Perhaps it's why the current nest isn't in my garden.

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