Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

Mary Tant, author of the Rossington series of classic crime novels set in the West Country, writes about the natural world which is so important in her imaginative life.

October 2012

Monday 1 October 2012

The old drove road was muddy underfoot, shadowy under the arching beeches. It was an ancient route, hidden under the trees as it wound round and up the bottom rampart beneath the steep side of another hill fort. White faces peered down from the almost vertical slope as the sheep paused in their browsing to stare at me.

I'm sure it was used long before shepherds moved their flocks along it up from the land below. And long before the hazels that edged it were first coppiced. For high above the slope is the hill fort, the eastern-most of the three that I walk near.

As I emerged into bright sunlight from the shade of the route up to the ridge all I see of the fort is a single tree crowning the grass-covered mounds that are all that show of it now. And a little further on is a single remaining tumulus, grass-covered and isolated in a huge arable field.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Billie, the blackbird male in my front garden, hasn't been seen since we went to Dartmoor in July. He usually perched in the viburnam bodnantense in the corner of the garden, watching my comings and goings.

His beady eyes peered down on me when I got in or out of the car. When I worked in the garden he usually came rustling through the hedge to check on what I was up to. At dusk he was a round grey silhouette against the more angular grey shapes of the tree.

And now, nothing. Not a sign of him.

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Wednesday 3 October 2012

There were two small brown figures in the distance, conspicuous against the bleached stubble of the open field. They were right in the centre of the huge expanse that stretched up the far slope, and as far from the fringing woodlands as they could possibly be. The fallow deer moved slowly, grazing peacefully, but looked up alertly as soon as they became aware of me watching them.

Higher up the slope, the field was flushed with the green of new crop growth. Here there was a scattering of white seagulls, until I looked away for a second. Glancing back, it was like using a kaleidoscope. The seagulls had gone, vanished without trace, and the pattern had changed. There were black shapes instead as a flock of crows searched the ground in a tight-knit camaraderie.

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Thursday 4 October 2012

There was a chattering rustling all through my back garden as a sparrow convention arrived to settle in the apple tree. There must have been thirty or more, perhaps a family reunion.

Several moved on to the jasmine against the back of the house, making the whole creeper shake and quiver as they found perches. A few stopped by the dusty hollow Tirn, my elderly collie, has made under the daphne. He loves to lay here on hot days, shaded from the sun. The sparrows love the soft soil too, wriggling and squirming in it, sending little cloudy puffs into the air around them.

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Friday 5 October 2012

It was totally silent under the trees in the New Forest, apart from the occasional snapping of a twig underfoot. Last year's sodden leaf litter was sprinkled with the first of this year's leaf fall. Golden and russet discs lay under the beeches, and in one place slender yellow needles made a carpet under a fir. Small pieces of bark lay in a thick untidy heap under a dying oak, its smooth silvery inner trunk rising up like a ghost, pointing it bare upper branches into the sky.

A huge figure dropped suddenly from another oak ahead of me, gliding silently away out of sight among the trees. A wood buzzard, gone without a sound being made.

The deer made more noise when they took flight. I'd been able to watch them for a while before they noticed me. The four fallow does had white spotted backs, but their general colouring blended with the bronzed bracken that screened them as they browsed. Two leaped off without hesitation once I was spotted, the other two lingered for a while, perhaps curious, perhaps hesitant to break cover.

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Saturday 6 October 2012

He was appealing, his chocolate coat and mane fringed with ginger, his dark gaze appealing and completely confiding. I've seen him before, but never so close to, this young Shetland foal in the New Forest.

I only saw him so closely today because he was lingering by the car, clearly expecting to be fed. And a little later on when I passed by again in the car I could see him laying fast asleep on the layby verge, his piebald mother standing watch over him.

He was in pole position for the next parking car, and I could see why visitors do feed him, he was almost irresistible. But I've also seen a mare standing beside the road where her foal had been killed, head drooping and refusing to leave the spot days after the body had been removed.

The ponies here do move freely across and along the roads. Encouraging them to linger in car parking areas where they can be hidden from passing traffic when they emerge simply increases their risk of injury and death.

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Monday 8 October 2012

Swallows dipped and dived over the cart track up to the downs, silent and fast as they hunted low-flying insects. I haven't seen any here for some time, so these must be migrants, en route to the south-west before setting off for the long trip to Africa.

Below the track, a much larger fork-tailed bird dropped out of a tree. A red kite, not attracted by the swallows, but keen to patrol the thick hedgerows between the fields at the foot of the downs.

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Tuesday 9 October 2012

Three small brown furry bodies were instantly noticeable in the field at the top of the downs. They stood out against the white chalky lumps and the granite knobs that littered the ground, busily eating the turnip shoots that were coming through. They munched on, far enough away to be unconcerned about me.

Tirn and I have seen hares here for years, sitting above a hidden ride that goes steeply down through the trees on the slope beside the path to watch them. They've always gone about their business, quite unconcerned about my collie and I as they ate. In the spring they've been here in large numbers, and have often almost come close enough to touch, engrossed as they were, males pursuing females, females boxing the ears of males who encroached too far.

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Wednesday 10 October 2012

There are newcomers to my back garden. A solitary coal tit was busy for more than an hour in the willow that grows beside the pond. He searched the branches, thickly covered with moss and lichen, flitting restlessly from one to another. His activities attracted a blue tit, who came to join in, although the coal tit was keen to keep a good distance between them.

The other newcomer also enjoys the branches of the willow, winding through them with agile grace. But this is not another bird, and however much I enjoy watching his acrobatics, I do regret his appearance. He's a grey squirrel, whom I first saw running along the fence just before we went to Dartmoor.

There's never been a squirrel in my garden before. Perhaps they've been deterred by Tirn's presence, as the local cats generally have been. But of course now he's too frail to chase squirrels away, although he makes a good attempt to do it. So I've got another potential bird predator to add to the magpies. The odds are being stacked against my smaller birds. So far they've survived, and in fact seem to have proliferated. But I wonder if that will last.

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Thursday 11 October 2012

Another wide drove road leads down from the eastern hill fort, more open than the one I usually walk up but still secret, sunken much deeper into the ground and screened by massive beeches. Beside it is a steep green valley, heavily sculpted by ice long ago. The valley side below the path has been riddled with the tunnels of a rabbit warren, whose humps and tracks score the green grass.

It was here one winter that I saw a stoat in ermine, its body pure white, its tail tipped with black. It was completely engrossed in its business, slipping into one hole, out of another, until it had covered the whole warren.

There was no sign of rabbits above ground, and while I watched none came popping out in front of the hunter. As it didn't linger underground I could only assume that it didn't find one, and that, forewarned, the prey had moved to safety elsewhere.

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Friday 12 October 2012

The stag was standing in a patch of sunlight that lit the small grassy New Forest glade. It was a bright place seen from the shade of the trees, and the white spots on his chestnut back were clearly visible, although it was the spread of his antlers that really drew my eyes.

He stood quite still watching me. As I stood quite still watching him I became aware of a second stag in the trees to my left, about twelve feet away. His antlers blended with the branches of the oak that half hid him, and his front legs were the only other visible part of his body. These were quite obvious once I knew he was there, but quite easily mistaken for slender holly stems when passing casually by.

The first stag suddenly leaped away without any caution, bounding down the slope and out of sight among the trees. The second followed more circumspectly, moving carefully and silently round the oaks and beeches, keeping the cover of the trees between himself and me.

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Saturday 13 October 2012

The pigs are out in the New Forest, a real sign of autumn. These were big creatures, pale pink ones, curiously called whites and grey-banded Hampshires, like faded versions of the Saddlebacks.

They were busy hovering up the acorns and beech mast, not concerned about me at all, especially once they spotted a few fallen crab apples. Commoners have the right to graze their pigs in the Forest for a limited time, traditionally to fatten them up for the winter, but also to reduce the amount of acorns available to the ponies, to whom they are poisonous. This year, though, I've found less acorns and beech mast crunching underfoot when I walk through the trees, so I guess the weather this year has affected them.

I once met a dozen smaller pigs here, all bright clean pink. They were busy snuffling around the roots of a beech tree, their curly tails wiggling furiously. But they were curious when they saw me watching them, and made their way, eating all the time, over towards me.

I stood quite still, no so concerned as usual as these didn't reach my knee in height. I'm normally very careful not to get to close to them, partly because they are generally rather large, and partly because I don't know how they'll react, especially if I have my collie with me.

But when these little ones came clustering around me they decided I made a good scratching post, rubbing against my legs and peering up me with tiny intelligent eyes. As rapidly as they came up to me, so rapidly they moved on, tails still wiggling as they fanned out into the trees.

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Monday 15 October 2012

The single coal tit in my back garden has begun bringing his mates. There were four of them feeding in the willow today before they flitted off separately to other parts of the garden. The original arrival, though, hovered just like a rounded humming-bird, wings fluttering in a fast blur for a couple of seconds, before he dived into the small golden conifer by the terrace steps.

Bella, the female blackbird, has begun chasing off Bertie, the male, when he comes to feed. I've seen him scooting off in front of her, zigzagging backwards and forwards down the garden before taking to the air to fly away. I'm presuming the male is still Bertie, and not a newcomer, because he has Bertie's habits. He stands on the barrel outside the garden room window, looking in whenever he spots me, and waiting quite confidently when I open the back door to scatter mealworms.

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Tuesday 16 October 2012

One of the old drove roads emerges into a tree-lined track between paddocks. It was here that Tirn and I once saw a small brown creature coming jauntily towards us. It darted backwards and forwards to the tree roots, but generally stayed on the open track, prancing confidently towards us.

This is stoat country, and this was a stoat. Perhaps it was the one I'd seen in winter ermine, perhaps a descendent of that one. He seemed young and was certainly curious, fascinated enough when he saw Tirn and I to come more slowly towards us after only a brief hesitation.

When he had was very close I moved fractionally, just enough for him to realise what I was. Even then he lingered for a few seconds, before caution overcame curiosity. In a flash he'd gone into the long grass.

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Wednesday 17 October 2012

A couple of weeks ago I had my first sighting of an autumn geese skein. There were at least twenty of them, heralded by their loud honking, flying west to east at about ten in the morning, following the line of the canal. In the west they feed on fields near the water, grazing over the emerging crops. In the east, also close to the canal, are the water-filled old gravel pits where they congregate with other geese.

These morning and evening flights are regular autumn events, a sign of the season as surely as swifts bring in summer here.

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Thursday 18 October 2012

There was a flash of blue as the jay flew up from under the beeches, something clutched firmly in his beak. He and his brethren have become much more noticeable this year. I'm sure that there are reduced quantities of fruit and nuts this autumn, so I guess the birds have to fly further and more frequently to feed.

When I'm out walking, one may fly up from the foot of the hedgerow. Sometimes one dashes in alarmed flight across the front of the car when I'm driving down a lane. But always their markings are vivid enough to provide instant recognition.

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Friday 19 October 2012

For a few weeks now I've seen small flocks of thrushes feeding on the open turf of one of the New Forest plains. They run across the grass like clockwork toys, bobbing up and down, then they launch themselves into a low dipping flight to move on to another feeding ground.

This time, though, I was close enough to see the patches of grey under their wings as they flew past me. Fieldfares, here from Scandinavia for the autumn and winter feeding. This year though the holly trees are remarkably thin of berries. For the last few winters the trees have already by this time been heavy with fruit that makes a brilliant red splash across swathes of the forest.

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Saturday 20 October 2012

The oaks and beeches hid the New Forest ride from view. But I've walked here for many years with Tirn, my elderly collie, and know well which bushes to pass behind to find the entrance.

This time I walked alone, as the distance is now too great for Tirn. And it was uncanny, strange, to be scanning the thickets and glades for deer. I realised how much I relied on Tirn's senses to spot them, how much his companionship drew my attention to things I might have easily missed.

So I was startled, very startled, when it came, the bellowing roar that resounded through the trees, sounding horribly close.

There was no sign of the stag, although for an instant I'd thought he must be steaming up behind me. Their roaring is meant to carry from the rutting lawns, and this certainly did.

A couple of years ago Tirn and I sat on a log near this spot, picnicking in lovely autumn sunshine. The peace of the glade was broken only by the repeated bellowing from the rutting lawn that lay a safe distance down the slope, behind a protective hawthorn thicket. And I faced the narrow ride that led downwards, with a good view for some yards, so I expected to have time to make a retreat if necessary.

It was Tirn's fixed gaze that made me aware that we had company. He wasn't alarmed, just curious, so I turned very carefully towards the thicket. And there, just yards away, there was a moving shadow among the sepia gloom of the bushes.

I watched, transfixed, as a large stag wove his way silently through the thicket. His head was bent low to keep the impressive set of antlers that crowned it from tangling in the hawthorns. His attention was fixed on approaching the challenger on the rutting lawn below, so he moved away from us out of sight, with not a sound to betray his presence.

I wondered if his appearance would catch the challenger by surprise. There was no relaxation in the challenging bellow that rang out repeatedly, so I guessed that either the rutting lawn was further away than I'd realised or the approaching stag may have stayed in cover for a while to assess his opponent.

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Monday 22 October 2012

The blackbird corridor in my back garden has been decimated. Bella cleverly identified it this year as a safe place to nest, as sheltered as she could probably be from the sight of magpies and cats. She settled in the elaeagnus that had grown into a fairly thick screen against the fence, and was generally hidden from view by other shrubs and trees. Parents and babies could scurry along the ground up to the terrace without breaking cover or taking to the air.

But the daphne odora that formed a comforting bulk in the middle of that bed died, and had to be removed. A low spreading spindle has been repeatedly susceptible to aphid infestation that this year hasn't been dealt with by the many predators who normally feed on them. The infestation spread this year to the nearby fruit bushes that grew in front of Bella's nest site, so these have been moved to another site. And to my sorrow and irritation a mistake meant that the elaeagnus which I had trimmed so carefully over many years was also cut down.

So I've had to visit the local nursery and identify evergreens, well grown already, and able to grow fast, to recreate Bella's corridor and nesting area as rapidly as possible. I've put in shrubs that flower at different times of the year, so the area should be nicely scented for most of the time.

But I doubt that it will be enough for next year's breeding season. Still, I don't know if she reuses old sites. She did last year, nesting for her second and third broods in the berberis above the shed, but I have no idea if that's normal practice.

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Tuesday 23 October 2012

Frogs sprang out from under the wild strawberries as I cleared old growth beside the shed in my back garden. They've always liked this spot, close to the pond, with plenty of ground cover.

The pond was cleaned out recently, and only four frogs were found in it, ranging from absolutely enormous to very tiny. In past years there have been more than twenty, but numbers have inexplicably shrunk recently.

When Tirn, my collie, was just over a year old, the man clearing out the pond was fascinated as he counted out the frogs. He'd got the count to more than forty, before I could stop laughing and go out to point to what was happening behind him.

Tirn was very busily herding all the frogs back to the other end of the pond, waiting behind each one until it jumped in where he knew it belonged. Once back in the low water in the bottom of the pond the frogs hopped hastily out of his sight, down to the far end where they were carefully lifted out again and counted.

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Wednesday 24 October 2012

Crowds had gathered for the pony sale in the middle of a wide New Forest plain. And it wasn't only people and ponies who had come for the event.

Ten donkeys were clustered in a tight group among the nearest parked cars. They were skilled operators, ready for people approaching from any direction. Their approach was direct, walking straight up to newcomers, eyes on their hands and pockets, lips lifting gently in enquiry.

And, cleverly, they'd brought a major attraction with them. A tiny chocolate-coloured foal with enormous dark eyes, fringed with long lashes. She was quite unfazed by all the attention she received, nuzzling repeatedly at her mother as she was photographed.

Meanwhile the other adults in the group worked the crowd like experts, moving from one person to the next smoothly and without haste. I didn't notice that they were fed by anyone, and an hour later when I left all the donkeys had gone too.

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Thursday 25 October 2012

The wide grassy New Forest glade is fringed with rows of silver birches, whose trunks gleamed in the sunlight. It's as if they've been carefully planted in avenues, to create a focal point in a huge garden.

And the cows that paraded slowly past could have been brought in specially to blend with the colour scheme. They came in single shades of black, tan, cream and white, and tastefully mingled together as they moved purposefully under the yellow-leafed trees.

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Friday 26 October 2012

The New Forest heathland was sodden, with water lying in pools among the darkened heather clumps. Out in the open the water shimmered, reflecting the sky.

But one pool lay under cover of a fringe of bushes and an overhanging birch. Here the water was darker, more mysterious, and it hosted a pale mysterious figure, standing still and silent on one side. It was a grey heron, perhaps hoping for a meal of frogs.

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Saturday 27 October 2012

The darker evenings are already leading to more animal road kills. Down in the New Forest it's a dangerous time for the cows, donkeys and ponies that roam freely, and now too for the pigs out for the autumn pannage. But even elsewhere I'm finding the roads splattered with corpses.

Pheasants predominate, as their numbers haven't yet been reduced by shooting. They run frantically along the roads when a car approaches, skittering backwards and forwards, unable to decide what to do or which way to go. Sometimes they remember they can fly, but sometimes they make the wrong choice.

There's the occasional squirrel corpse as well. The creatures are out in large numbers collecting what seasonal fodder they can, and I frequently have them darting out in front of me, an acorn clenched in their teeth.

Badgers and deer are out there feeding too, and leaving their unlucky fellows dead on the roads. Recently I was driving down a lane when I noticed a red kite lifting off the ground ahead. It settled on a nearby telegraph pole, and I saw that the line that ran from it held another kite and a row of crows. I knew I was going to find a large body on the road before I got to it, and there it was, a badger that must have been killed in the early hours of the morning.

I've rarely seen run-over hedgehogs for the last few years, but last week I saw a large one squashed right in the centre of a lane. The creature must have rolled into a ball in a vain attempt to protect itself.

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Monday 29 October 2012

Sprays of blood-red berries framed the view through the hawthorn bushes to the fields below the downs. Pigeon wings flashed briefly white in the sunlight as the birds flew past, shrunk by distance to tiny figures. Faint traces of green were visible in the nearest field, but the neighbouring one was still cream with bleached wheat stems. Among the stalks bright white wands had been stuck in the ground, marking the stands for shooters.

In the distance, on the far side of the ridge, came the sound of guns. On this side, another hunter came briefly into view. The sunlight transformed the back of his wings into blackness as the kestrel turned in the air to alight on the topmost point of a bush. Once there he was almost totally invisible against the brightness of the light, as he scanned the rough grass tussocks for the slightest sign of movement.

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Tuesday 30 October 2012

Bella, the female blackbird in my back garden, not only chases away Bertie, the male, if he comes into range when she's feeding. She also expends a lot of energy keeping off sparrows who venture down to eat mealworms near her. Robbie, the robin, just waits nearby and hops in behind her when she can't spot him.

Today she had to see off another two blackbirds, a male and female, who came confidently to feed on the terrace. Judging from their familiarity with the routine I suspect they may be some of her recent babies.

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Wednesday 31 October 2012

Drifts of large yellow heart-shaped lime leaves veiled the common. Beyond, a cluster of cream and tan cows moved purposefully up towards the pens by the top gate. One person walked behind them, making sure there was no lingering or breaking away.

Only one cow showed signs of falling back and turning off. The others were focussed on the car that led the way in front of them. It occasionally stopped, and the cows' interest in following it immediately became clear. The driver came round to the open boot, taking out handfuls of hay to feed the beasts.

Ahead, at the gate, one pen was already full of cows who had already been brought in. All four herds that grazed here during the summer are being brought in now, to be transported to their winter grounds. Just in time to escape the worst of the firework season.

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