Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

Mary Tant, whose successful Rossington classic crime mysteries now extends to six novels, writes about the natural world which is so important in her imaginative life.

September 2012

Sunday 2 September 2012

Loud twittering betrayed the sparrows, who were tucked away in the summer jasmine that grows thickly against the back of the house. They love to spend time here, hidden away among the long green strands that have for some time been starred with tiny white scented flowers.

But they never seem to sit there silently. I can always hear them, whether I'm working in the house, or out in the garden.

Monday 3 September 2012

The cart track to the downs stretched ahead of us, shimmering in the heat. There was no air. The ash keys hung motionless on the trees in the hedgerow. The silence was heavy, only broken by persistent faint buzzing.

A few bees were busily working over the late mauve and purple flowers of marjoram and knapweed. I've seen many less bees than I normally do here, where the wide verges are rich in wild flowers. But then I've also seen many less butterflies as well, when usually this strip of land is quivering with them.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Robbie, the robin who visits my back garden, was without his tail for a couple of weeks. It's back grown back quite quickly though, from the first tiny protuberance to the fully formed quiver that he now sports.

He may also have a companion. When I looked out of the garden window I saw him waiting for me in the branches of the willow by the pond. Beyond another rounded shape perched on the pinnacle of the bird table, the redness of her breast betraying her fellowship with Robbie.

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Wednesday 5 September 2012

The lines of flattened grass and flowers led out from the low dark tunnels under the hedge down to the cart track and continued on beyond it to the meadow below. The hedge tunnels were high enough for deer, as well as foxes and badgers, all of them passing backwards and forwards from the shelter of the copse at the top of the hill to the feeding grounds below.

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Thursday 6 September 2012

Walking across a pasture at the top of the downs I realised that I wasn't seeing the usual trail of chewed sweetcorn cobs. Badgers from the nearby sett love these in the autumn, and used to bring them down from the nearby maize strips. I don't know whether they chewed them as they walked, or sat down in the middle of the pasture to enjoy them. The cobs were always right out in the open, beside the faint track in the grass that marked the walkers route.

But today there were no chewed cobs. Looking back up the field I saw that there were no patches of maize beside the copse. Until recently the maize was grown as cover for the pheasants who were fed in the copse. And the wild flowers and grasses that grew and seeded among the maize stalks fed a wide variety of other birds.

I presume the pheasant shooting has been reduced, so that less cover is needed. At the moment the patch is left fallow, but still supports a number of thistles which will feed some birds. Badgers, though, can't pick up a snack here anymore.

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Friday 7 September 2012

The tails of the New Forest ponies were swishing away the persistent flies. It was only when the tails hung neatly down for a while that I saw they had been neatly trimmed, a sign that the annual drift has taken place.

These tails had been clipped on the left, the pattern that identifies the agister who manages these ponies.

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Saturday 8 September 2012

The ripe blackberries glistened in the sunlight. These bushes at the top of the cart track, where it joins the old route along the ridge, are where I picked vast quantities of fruit over the years. Hardly a soul came here, but sometimes deer watched from the wildflower meadow below the track.

Tirn, my collie, elderly now, but youthful and full of energy then, resigned himself to a long wait. He often tucked himself under one of the bush, where a badger or fox had wriggled out a hollow. Unlike them he lay waiting, occasionally accepting a handpicked berry. They helped themselves, taking off ripe fruit within reach, judging from the seeds in nearby droppings.

The wildflower meadow has gone now, replaced by a field of wheat, and as Tirn struggles up to the ridge path we pass the fruit by.

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Monday 10 September 2012

The blackbirds in my back garden make totally different calls when they see me. Bertie, the male, has a piercing shriek, which gets louder and louder until I notice him. It can be heard pretty much all through the house, and starts in the morning as soon as he hears my voice, which he can identify through two closed doors.

Bella, the female, has a soft warble. Low though the sound is, it still carries quite some distance. She's less inclined to raise her voice, but makes the call persistently from the bushes until I realise she's there.

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Tuesday 11 September 2012

The second robin appears quite regularly now, shadowing Robbie, the male robin who frequents my back garden.

Robbie is very cautious around the blackbirds, who seem to tolerate his close presence less than that of the few sparrows who hover around. When either of the blackbirds is there Robbie hops smartly away to watch from a distance. If I manage to scatter a few mealworms far enough from where they're feeding, he'll slip down and pick up one, retreating to eat it out of sight. He rarely sits and eats the mealworms on the spot, preferring to hop under cover with his prize.

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Wednesday 12 September 2012

Neat rows of cut straw lay across the field, drying in the sunshine. The sun still shone today, making this exposed ridge on the downs very hot. The red machine towing the racks of tines tracked backwards and forwards along the rows, turning the straw and leaving the lines slightly more ragged than they were before.

Nearby, round bales of hay were being loaded on trailers that were towed away behind tractors. These were often to be met with, usually in the shade of overhanging trees, on the sharpest corners of the narrowest lanes.

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Thursday 13 September 2012

The blackbird pair in my back garden is looking rather worn. The feathers on their heads are moulting, leaving them with a rather bald appearance. Bertie, the male, looks less sleek than he has done. His black plumage had lost its gloss, the yellow of his beak and of the rims around his eyes is dulled. But his dominant character and imperious nature remain unchanged.

He and Bella, the female, frequently come together to be fed. Looking out of the dining room window on several occasions recently I have seen them close to each other, busily searching the ground in my courtyard garden. I hadn't realised before how regularly they feed together.

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Friday 14 September 2012

Hay bales towered like monoliths in stubble-covered fields. Seagulls and crows mingled in a monotone flock. They swirled behind the machine that was rolling a recently harrowed field into milk-chocolate coloured smoothness. And the sun shone over Dartmoor as we arrived at the moor gate.

Once out of the car the wind was more obvious, blowing my hair out behind me as I climbed the path towards the tor above the cottage. Tirn, my elderly collie, was so pleased to be back that he kept making a little skip as he followed me. This is the nearest he comes now to breaking into a trot, but he kept up a good pace, puffing as he came, his pink tongue protruding slightly between his lips. Once we were on the downhill stretch his speed increased, although I'm not always sure that this is voluntary. He is keen to get back to the cottage, but the gradient is steep. In this direction at least he rarely stops to sniff at the smells.

Down in the little valley below the cottage it was quite still and calm. The only sound was the rushing of the brook. Little had changed, the greenery was slightly browner, more worn, the bracken was dying back.

Fern fronds are flourishing in the mossy bark of one of the hawthorns lining the drive. Blackberries are ripening into glistening blackness on the brambles that screen the brook.

In the garden, it was quiet in the sunlight. A startled jay flew across the upper lawn, his blue wing patches flashing. We're back on the moor, and in lovely weather too.

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Saturday 15 September 2012

The lawn was wet with dew as Tirn and I walked through the garden of the Dartmoor cottage. Down in the valley below the moor the fields were faintly hazed with grey. The streaks of clouds were smoke coloured against a sky lightly colour washed in blue.

From below a tawny owl called repeatedly. This was the only sound to be heard as the sky beyond the tor was lit with gold from the rising sun.

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Monday 17 September 2012

It was like the chiming of tiny musical bells, the sound rising and falling. It came closer and closer until the flock of small birds was visible. They rose and fell too in dipping flight over the fluffy thistle heads on the moor, the sunshine silvering the underneath of their wings.

The calls and flashes of light ceased abruptly as the charm of goldfinches settled over a hawthorn. Each branch seen in dark silhouette against the sunlit sky seemed to have a tiny bird perched on the end of it.

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Tuesday 18 September 2012

I was suddenly aware of being watched as I sat in the sitting room. Two of the windows look towards the tor, the other at the back of the room gives a view over the pasture beyond the Dartmoor cottage. In the past there has been an iridescent green pheasant peering in, and a young squirrel plastered against the sill to watch us as closely as possible. But the massive white figure that stood there today gave me a shock.

There were three more beyond, but the front cow was the most curious, her huge furry ears stretched out of the side of her head, her brown eyes watching us curiously, her head pushing slowly out, nostrils quivering, to inspect us.

Behind her two calves jostled playfully under the twin beeches, heads down, pushing each other backwards and forwards. The adults though soon had word of our amusement value, and came from all corners of the field, shoving each other aside to see what was going on.

The field is higher than the cottage, with a narrow channel between the two. So the cows halted a foot or so from the window, their feet on a level with my chest as they lowered their massive heads, eyes meeting mine and holding my gaze for a few seconds.

Even the calves caught the excitement and came more slowly over to gaze at us. For one of them nourishment was more important, and he hurried to his mother, nuzzling her udder for milk. By the time the other cows and calves drifted off the feeder was still there, his mother standing calmly gazing up the slope towards the line of oaks below the summit.

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Wednesday 19 September 2012

Red admirals drifted across the verges of the ridge path, their scarlet banding vivid in the sunlight. A painted lady lay motionless on the stony path leading to a church. For an instant I thought it was dead, then it floated away across the rough grass. In the valley below the cottage there are several newly minted meadow browns, with shining yellow spots on their wings. An older meadow brown, faded and almost translucent, battered itself feebly against the sitting room window for a few seconds this morning.

I've seen more butterflies here on Dartmoor in a few days than I have for the rest of this year elsewhere.

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Thursday 20 September 2012

Tirn, my elderly collie, lay in the garden under the starlit sky. He enjoys the night scents, particularly as foxes, and perhaps badgers, visit the garden later. I enjoy the stars that stretch over my head like a blaze of sparkling jewels spread temptingly across dark velvet. Cassiopeia I can recognise easily, zigzagging low above the village, and the Plough, hanging even lower over the top of the garden, as if it's about to fall to earth and start work in one of the fields below.

At the corner of the garden a streak of white is the trunk of a slender young silver birch, barely noticeable during the day against the field behind it. Tonight it led my eyes up through a faint haze to the fainter whiteness above where the Milky Way runs through the stars like a river.

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Friday 21 September 2012

A stately flotilla sailed downriver, the adult swans white against the green water. One led the way, the other brought up the rear, and in between were the mink-coloured youngsters, four in all, by now the same size as their parents.

I sat in a striped green and white deckchair at the front of Greenway house, looking down through the branches of a magnolia to where the birds passed the moored boats. Tirn, my elderly collie, lay at my feet. This is one of his favourite gardens, and on previous visits he has been determined to get down to the boathouse, the closest he can get to the water. Today he was content to lie in the sun, enjoying the scents.

So we sat there for some time, as I wondered if Agatha Christie had done the same with her dogs on a day like this.

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Saturday 22 September 2012

The tractor was like a child's toy, a round bale of hay on its front prongs as it moved across the small field in the valley below the tor. Otherwise all was still as I picked my way through the rocks on the summit. The colour was fading as evening fell and the white mica glittered eerily in the granite. Once or twice the shadows under the huge boulders took on the shape of a person, and for a fraction of a second it was possible to imagine an early defender standing here, watching the valley below for invaders, or a prehistoric farmer gazing down over his stock before returning to one of the round houses whose remains can still be found among the rock clitter.

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Sunday 23 September 2012

Walking up the pasture to the ridge path I was watching the compact black sheep with their curled horns like polished steel. Suddenly there was a stirring in the long grass to my right. First one long neck reared up, then another, with small heads crowned with distinctive topknots. Coal black, chocolate brown and creamy white, each head turned towards me, big eyes staring. The alpacas weren't going to be caught by surprise.

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Monday 24 September 2012

It was a circle of rocks, perched above a river gorge where the water poured down under the trees. Once this circle was a pound around a prehistoric round house, where men smelted and worked iron in ancient furnaces.

Ash berries were scarlet against the greenery edging the gorge. Yellow gorse flowered over bushes that stretched uphill towards the towering rock stack in the distance. Here and there sheep peered through the gorse, grazing over the remains of the houses and strip fields of the village that was once here.

And above, the only moving creature in the landscape, a kestrel hovered, wings beating to hold its position on the air currents.

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Tuesday 25 September 2012

The old drove road was silent as I sat on a moss-covered rock beside it. Nobody else was negotiating its rough surface. Not a bird or animal stirred on the tor behind my back.

The river valley below was screened by trees but ahead rose a steep ridge of land, high above my head. It was tightly packed with gorse, dark under the sun, and a pattern of green tracks ran through it, like the lozenges on a giraffe's skin.

High above came the call of a buzzard, then the bird itself came into sight. It swirling lower and lower over the opposite slope, intermittently visible as its shape disappeared against the gorse background and then reappeared against the green of the paths.

For the half hour I sat on the rock watching the scene, this was the only sound I heard and the only movement I saw.

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Wednesday 26 September 2012

A robin is the most conspicuous occupant of the Dartmoor cottage garden. He is busy here most of the day, flitting down from his favoured perch in the central berberis to pick up insects from the lawn, or landing to pull out an unwary worm. From time to time he sings from the berberis, the notes ringing out loud and clear. From beyond the garden another robin answers immediately.

At teatime the garden robin comes to watch me, perching on a branch in full view. Somebody has fed him at this hour before, but he is wary, not quite sure if I'm going to do the same. And when I move my hand to throw down crumbs he flies away.

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Thursday 27 September 2012

The slope below the tor was like a maze of dark green holly bushes, threading a way through the silver and mauve of silver birches. Bright berries on the mountain ashes shone like beacons, highlighting the way.

Back at the cottage, Tirn, my elderly collie, knew leaving was imminent once I brought out his travelling box to pack away his towels and toys. He insisted on walking over the tor, and round the garden again and again. Even when he rested, he lay pointing towards the tor above the cottage, occasionally lifting his nose to sniff the air.

We had a chilly tea outside, as I wanted to savour our last moments here too. And we had company, announced by a loud snuffling behind us.

Turning round, startled, as I'd almost felt the breath on my neck, I saw a large creamy bovine face at the back of the wall, brown eyes watching me curiously. The cows have moved round to the pasture above the cottage, and this particular one was having a nibble at some particularly succulent grass growing out of the wall when she spotted me.

Tirn, of course, is now too deaf to hear noises off, but he did watch the large shapes that were visible when the cows moved round the outside of the wall. Then he returned to staring at the moor.

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Friday 28 September 2012

Last night there was a full moon riding over the tor, like a pale globe floating above a cup with a ragged rim.

This morning when I woke the sun was gilding the beeches outside my window. They were only touched with gold when we came back to the moor two weeks ago. Now, as we leave again, they are distinctly hued with autumn colours, bronze, copper and gold.

In the valley below the cottage, there are yellow leaf discs among the green on the silver birches. The next tiny sign of the changing seasons.

Tirn, my elderly collie, slipped on the upward path to the tor this morning on our departure walk. The rocks are difficult to negotiate at the best of times, and he's found the walking slightly more difficult this time. Not surprising as he's over fifteen now. And he's at the end of his monthly painkiller cycle, which partially alleviates the pain from spondylitis.

Although he turned back from this path he was reluctant to get into the heavily laden car to be borne away from the moor. So I let him choose a walk, and inevitably he chose the lower route around the base of the tor that led us directly back to the cottage. At the top of the drive down to it he stood still, staring meaningfully towards it, doing all he could to indicate that he wanted to go that way, towards the cottage.

How dull and stupid he must have thought me when I persuaded him to walk back to the car and drove off, over the moor and away. But perhaps he knows I don't much want to go either.

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Saturday 29 September 2012

Bertie, my back garden blackbird, was hurrying across the lawn under the viburnam. Suddenly he stopped, his head cocked as he peered up at the house, wondering if it was me at the garden room window. When I opened the back door and threw out a few mealworms he came scurrying up to the terrace. The second time this happened he was joined by Bella, the female. Then Robbie the robin appeared.

All of them fell back into old habits without a qualm, but they had certainly not suffered for my absence. Bertie, in fact, has regained his usual glossy sleekness, and lost all the greying feathers and balding patches.

There was one cracked white eggshell in the garden before we went away. Today there was a second, so it looks as though the wood pigeons have had a third brood. And that this one was hatched in a nest in their old site, the large golden fir, which the starlings have now vacated.

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