The pond in my back garden is clear of frogs' spawn. By this time last year there were several lots of spawn, guarded by several lurking females. I was afraid that this year the females would start laying while I was away, leaving their eggs vulnerable to frosting. A few years ago I came down one morning to find the huge mounds that had accumulated had been frozen, killing the embryos inside the jelly.
The tiny daffodils that were flowering in my porch pots two weeks ago seem not to have changed, reflecting how cold it's been here too.
The one thing that is different is the extreme eagerness of the blackbirds for mealworms. Bertie and Bella both appear the instant the key turns in the backdoor lock. Bertie flies low up the garden, direct as an arrow to the water butt next to the garden room window. Perched there he is almost glaring into my eyes when I pull the door open, and I have a close view of his glossy black feathers and gleaming yellow beak and eye rims. Bella appears less directly, but sits squarely in the willow on the far side of the terrace, as obviously in my line of vision as Bertie.
In the front garden Billie is also quick to appear in the laurels when he spots me, sometimes hopping down to the flowerbeds near the front door. He is less glossy than Bertie, but also often has a female with him. I don't know if this is Binkie, his last year's mate, but she is, on first glance, at least less competitive than Bella.
The thatcher's face was virtually invisible between the furred flaps of his hat. Not surprising, as he was working in the extreme cold, perched on the ladder that ran up the side of the cottage roof. Most of the new thatch was on, he was dressing reed into position with a square leggett, swinging it up and down like an oddly shaped hammer.
Below the little white cottage the last few bundles of reeds were propped up like old-fashioned stooks of hay close to the fast-flowing water of the winter bourne. The bourne swirls round the side of the cottage and pours by its front garden, separating it from the road. It was running full and fast, racing through the village and on down the valley, and has undoubtedly benefitted from the months of rain.
An open white egg lay on the path below the golden fir at the side of the garden yesterday. So the wood pigeons have already nested in their favourite site, in spite of the extremely cold weather.
The egg was complete but cracked, perhaps from its fall from the shallow nest. The strong wind we had during the night was probably responsible for its tumble.
By this morning the egg had gone, with not a trace of shell to be seen. If the hedgehog is active now she's had an unexpected delicacy to add to her diet.
The first small batch of frogs' spawn was floating in the pond this morning. It's in the spot where the female was frozen into the ice a month ago, the most favoured laying spot which catches the sunshine, when there is any, for a good part of the day.
A small trout flickered in the water, holding itself steady against the strong current in the clear chalk river. It was hovering above a dip in the shingle bank that protruded through the streaming green weed.
The trout have been spawning over the gravel in the shallow stream that runs through the gardens at Mottisfont Abbey. The water is beautifully clear here, running in smooth flows and small falls down a slope from the spring to the Test below.
It was so cold there today that the mallards were hunched miserably beside the river. The solitary swan standing in position by the bridge shifted from foot to foot as he preened, more concerned with this than waiting to be noticed by visitors.
Working out in the back garden today I found two more lots of frogs' spawn, one laid for yesterday morning, one over last night for today. They are all, as usual, at the sunnier northern end, so Bertie, the back garden blackbird is driven down to the waterfall end.
There he balances somewhat precariously on the stones to bathe in shallow spots. Seeing him wobble and flap his wings hard to regain his balance I decided to turn the water pump on. So now the water flows down the pools and falls again, giving him safer bathing places.
A small sleek shape arrowed past the top of the hedge, its long forked tail conspicuous as it deftly wove through the air. Its glossy back flashed first black, then deep blue. It was the first swallow I've seen this year, back from Africa to follow the meanderings of a tiny stream. This had overflowed to fill the little fields below the downs with a sheet of water where I often see little egrets too.
A fox crossed the bleached tussocky grass of the small field, heading without haste for the straggly hedgerow on the far side. The sun turned his russet coat to reddish gold, very conspicuous to any watcher. Just once he paused in his purposeful stride, turning to look over his shoulder as if aware of my gaze.
It was as if a piece of blue sky was reflected in a ragged pool under the lime avenue at Mottisfont. In fact, it was a carpet of delicate chionodoxa just spreading their Madonna blue petals. As they waved gently in the breeze, they created the illusion of a moving spring sky overhead. In the uniform greyness of the day it was a happy illusion.
Comfrey was in flower along some of the more distant watercourses. The flowers were small, only faintly tinged with pink, and perhaps easy to overlook. But there was a virtual miniature forest of the plants, holding the dangling flower heads in tiers above the water.
The bird's movements were familiar as it surged in powerful movements across the long stretch of water at The Vyne. But it had been magnified in size. I'm used to seeing little grebes here, but this was the greater crested variety.
Its long neck gave it an elegance as it swam, its crest was distinctly silhouetted against the light. Then it had gone, disappearing below the water.
I waited, watching the expanding ring that its dive had created. Then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning I saw it had emerged some distance away to continue purposefully on its chosen route.
Frequent mealworm feedings for the blackbirds Bertie and Bella in my back garden bring in other birds too. Sparrows clean up on the edge of the terrace, along with the robin, but a pair of starlings muscle straight into the middle of the action.
One of the starlings picked up a small white feather today. He strutted around with it for a while before flying first up to the shed roof and then higher into the golden fir. Here he moved in and out of the branches before resting for a moment. Then the feather floated away through the air out of sight and he dived after it.
I was sure at first that the feather was meant to line a nest, especially as the starlings had one in the fir last year. But it was almost as if he had reached a high point to play with the feather, rather as a child by a pond will let a boat float out and then catch it.
There are now seven lots of frogs' spawn in the pond, all laid on different nights, so all at different stages of development. And there are frogs there too.
At one stage a coupled pair hung in the water, the smaller male clutching the female tightly beside the mass of jelly. Later two different frogs were suspended separate in different parts of the pond, heads protruding, arms and legs spread as they waited there, motionless. I suspect these were males waiting for arriving females.
There was no breeze but the weeping willow was shivering with movement where it overhung the pool. Its drooping branches almost touched the water and there was a solitary coot, stretching up to peck at the green studs of unfurling new leaves. I couldn't tell whether it was the fresh greenery or small insect larvae that attracted it, but it was occupied here for several minutes as I watched it.
Further on, at the far end of the lake at The Vyne, another coot was busy. This had built the rudiments of a nest just where the branches of a crack willow protruded vertically over the lake. One was partially submerged and this was where the nest sat. The bird stood in its centre, busily pecking a piece of twig or reed into place, then standing back to consider its work.
Bobbing around outside my back garden shed was the first bumblebee I've seen this year. Sunlight shone on the deep red hair on her shoulders before she wavered off to explore the willow tree.
Daphne, forsythia and cherry are among the more obvious shrubs and trees in flower at the level she was exploring. If she goes down to the ground she'll find primroses, violets, daffodils and hellebores. But she didn't seem to be looking for nectar, and was perhaps more preoccupied with finding a nest site.
There is now a platform of twigs under the overhanging branches of the willow on the bank of The Vyne's lower pool. The coot that was preoccupied there earlier in the week now has a rudimentary nest on which she is still working busily.
On the lawn beside the main lake a whitish buff eggshell, broken open at one end, showed that the ducks had started laying. Whether it was a successful hatching was hard to say. There was no sign of a nest on the open bank on this side, or the more concealed far one. The only ducks in sight were a pair of mallard males, heads tucked under wings, sleeping peacefully on the grass by the edge of the lake. I rather suspect that the contents of the egg provided a meal for some fox that was prowling further along the water's edge, perhaps closer to the woodland that runs down beyond the parkland.
But spring has definitely come to the gardens here. Cowslips are flowering in the long grass under one of the apple trees. A brief spell of sunlight made the white violets vivid against the bare earth beneath a sallow by the bridge across the weir.
I suddenly glanced up from lunch in the garden room, and there was Bertie, the back-garden male blackbird, perched on the water barrel by the window. His eyes were drilling into me, and he'd clearly been willing me for some time to look up and spring into action. Behind him, a thin robin perched on the terrace table, waiting just as eagerly for mealworms to be thrown down.
The willow that grows on the edge of the terrace, overhanging the pond, provides a stage for most birds which visit here. But for a couple of days now I've been privileged to watch a very special performer in its branches. A tiny bird, smaller than the wren who hops through the arum leaves growing profusely on the edge of the pond.
This tiny bird is a goldcrest, with the yellowish marking on its head that gives it the name. The mark almost exactly blends with the yellowish silver lichen on the branches, while the bird's body feathers are the greenish grey of the willow bark. It's a restless creature, flitting up and down the branches, then off into the juniper, before resting slightly longer in my miniature golden fir.
I felt lucky to have baby wrens screaming around the garden last summer. I can't believe I might be fortunate enough to have goldcrest ones too this year.
A large white goose stood on the bank beside the river Test, staring at two other large white birds nearby which were feeding side by side in the water. These, nibbling just under the bank, were swans.
In the field beyond a herd of dark red cows ambled towards the village of Mottisfont, whose low church with its tiled tower top dominated the shallow ridge ahead. Despite the difference in scenery, for a moment I was transported in mind to Dartmoor as these were Devon Rubys, the breed I see so frequently there.
A wild chattering scolding broke out at the bottom of garden. There was a flurry of movement in the forsythia, shaking the upper branches so that the yellow flowers shivered. A medley of sparrows tumbled through the shrub, spilling out awkwardly to fly away short distances.
A little later I saw one sparrow resting briefly in the willow, a single slender twig clenched in his beak. Then she flew off towards the forsythia. So I imagine she may be nesting nearby.
Fluttering across the gravel paths in the formal garden at West Green House were the first butterflies of the year. A red admiral, very newly minted, rested briefly on the gravel, before drifting off to inspect the opening tulips edging the vegetable garden. Next came a peacock, the painted eyes on its wings winking as it floated over a row of lavender. Then, just as I was leaving, there was a glowing golden comma spreading its wings wide on the path. I suspect they were all attracted to the gravel for the salt it contained. They spent more time on or above it than they did in the flowerbeds and shrubs.
Bella, the female blackbird in my back garden, is feasting on tiny worms from the shallow pools of the waterfall. The water is running down this again now that the weather has improved.
Bella isn't even sitting on eggs yet, and I haven't even seen any signs of nest building. At this time last year the babies of her first brood were out in my garden, fat bundles of feathers squatting in clumps of flowers, occupying the tables and benches, as their parents brought them food.
Sadly the cover in my garden was much diminished with the loss of several old shrubs last year, and the accidental destruction of the thick hedge of elaeagnus where Bella has nested before. This meant the disappearance of the whole shelter corridor that enabled her, Bertie the male, and the young birds to reach the pond and the terrace for feeding without being observed by predators.
Since the loss of her first nest of newly hatched babies two years ago Bella has proved to be very canny at choosing good sites. I only hope her skill is standing her in good stead now, as a pair of magpies are nesting in the nearby firs again.
The blackbird territorial situation seems to be altering. This may be due to the dramatic change in cover, exacerbated by the cutting back of a thick stand of laurel just beyond my garden where the babies used to shelter after leaving their nest. It may in part be due to Bertie and Bella's breeding success rate, for they certainly brought several of babies to the young adult stage over the last two years.
Whatever the cause, Bertie seems to be facing a challenger for the bottom part of my back garden. The demarcation line seems to run pretty much half way across it, and skirmishes between the two males take place here. Bertie and Bella had been tolerating another male in the garden earlier in the year, but this toleration seems to have vanished now that they may have the first of this year's babies to feed.
The butterfly was a cabbage white, the first I've seen this year. Its wings flashed butter yellow in the sunshine as it fluttered across the lawns at Mottisfont. Jackdaws strutted across the grass of the sheep paddock, one soon flying off with a large twig in its beak, followed by a second of the birds. And in the distance a cuckoo called repeatedly from the eastern water meadows, another first for this year. Some unsuspecting warbler is likely to have a strange egg in its nest soon.
Four elephant babies were rescued in March by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, a place I came to know as my parents lived for a while in Nairobi near the elephant orphanage. The survival of young albino bull calf Jasiri is perhaps the most remarkable of these youngsters. He was found some months after his mother's shot carcase was discovered, despite the fact that he was still milk-dependent and would have found survival almost impossible. Now he is doing well in DSWT's elephant nursery where the resident young orphans welcomed him and helped him settle down. A young female, Laragai, soon joined him there.
But for these survivals there were the unexpected and the feared losses. The successful capture of feisty little bull calf Danissa was saddened by his unexpected later collapse and death. The sorrow of the one-week old Bocha's death in his sleep was anticipated and feared, unfortunately only too accurately.
To see brief clips of the rescue of these calves visit the DSWT site at http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org. Be prepared for the most touching sights, often quite literally. The babies are sedated to be transported, their eyes covered to reduce stress, but their trunks creep out, wandering around, hoping for some comforting touch. And there the keepers are, ready to let a searching trunk curl around their hands. The same keepers who spend the nights with their young charges, as they need the comfort of the caring nurturing presence that their mothers would have provided.
Once in the orphanage the other young elephants are quick to welcome and reassure the newcomers, absorbing them into the mixed family of elephants and humans. And that family is much extended. Grown orphans who have returned to the wild often visit the orphanage when they are passing to greeting old elephant and human friends. These adults encourage the new elephant youngsters, taking them on trips into the bush and safely returning them to the orphanage for their evening meals. They don't forget what was done for them, and take their turn in helping the newly bereaved babies to survive.
The sloping banks beside the Hampshire lane were smothered with the soft yellow of primroses, which gave way to the more glittering gold of shiny celandine flowers. A patch of gleaming white marked the spot where wood anemones grew thickly, their colour reflected in the sheep and lambs milling about in the field above.
Many of the lambs are very newly born and tiny, standing shakily on thin legs as they survey the large world around them with an air of bewilderment. Several lie in the long grass, barely visible as they snuggle up to the warmth of their mothers. The older ones venture further afield, and one, more exuberant, sprang repeatedly into the air like a jack in the box activated by an unseen child.
A jackdaw perched on the base of a chimney above the tiled roof of the old cottage. As I watched, there was a shiver of movement further down the roof, behind the carved bargeboard that edged it. Here, resting against the slightly higher roof of its neighbour, a growing nest of twigs was tucked away. The birds have chosen a warm site, facing the towering downs in the south.
A second jackdaw emerged from the nest, squeezing through a carved gap in the bargeboards to fly away across the roof towards the fields. The sentinel bird above left his post to fly close behind his mate.
The first lot of frogs' spawn in my garden pond melted away earlier in the week, releasing the little tadpoles. Now most of the mounds of jelly have gone, leaving just one tangled around water-weed in a corner.
Rows and rows of blooming auriculas stood in the plant theatre, sheltered under a thick clematis from the full brightness of the sun. The flowers came in all shades, and there were several curious visitors admiring them. At least one wasn't human. A tiny buff-bottomed bumblebee was perched motionless on the topmost flower of a cream and green cluster. It was just as if he had been positioned by one of the mediaeval Dutch still-life painters.
The female blackbird stopped abruptly in the lilacs of my front garden, uttering her loud alarm call as she saw me. It was surprising that she managed it, with her beak full of tiny worms from my backgarden pond.
Retreating to the porch I watched her take a circuitous route to her nest in the tall laurel hedge beyond my garden. It's a beautiful construction, wide and deep, with thick bleached leaves woven into it, like tiny bunting flags.
Billie, the male, has frequently been perched nearby in the viburnam bodnantense. At first I thought he wasn't well, sitting hunched over, looking miserable. But then a wood pigeon landed heavily on the neighbouring elder and I saw Billie burst into action. He dive-bombed the large plump bird, rather like an agile fighter plane attacking a ponderous transport several times his size. And the pigeon flew away at once.
The magpie that arrived later wasn't put off by similar tactics from Binkie, the female, who flew screaming at him. Unfortunately I suspect that must have confirmed any suspicions he had that her nest was nearby. I went out and clapped my hands, frightening him away several yards to a high tree where he sat scanning the scene.
Long slender twigs litter the ground underneath the golden fir, so I know the pigeons are nest-building again. I'm never sure whether these are discards, or pieces that drop inadvertently from the nest.
They seem to be very particular about what they use. One of them plodded slowly around a flowerbed today, scanning the ground. At last he stopped by a rockrose and began to tug at a wiry tendril. The fact that it was still attached to the plant and resisted his efforts didn't put him off. He tried and tried to remove it, occasionally moving away, but always coming back to try again. It was nearly five minutes before he gave up and resumed his solemn march, looking for a more accessible twig.
Both birds are busy flying in new twigs, and have clearly chosen this time to build near the top of the tall tree. This is possibly because their old site lower down the tree has been taken by the starlings.
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