Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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Mary Tant, whose popular classic crime series of Rossington novels reached the seventh mystery this year, writes about the natural world which is so important for her imaginative life.

August 2013

Thursday 1 August 2013

The yaffling cry was familiar, although I don’t often hear it in the New Forest cottage garden. The lime green body of the green woodpecker dipped up and down in wide curves as it flew over the lawn, close to the paddock edge. Although I haven’t seen them, there are presumably ants enough to attract the bird here, as I’ve several times spotted him on the grass, stabbing into it with great enthusiasm.

His colour was echoed, albeit in a more muted form, by the pair of green finches that have started to come to the bird feeder. I haven’t seen many of these birds for some time, and had forgotten quite how large they are, compared to their smaller cousins.

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Friday 2 August 2013

Back at home Bella the female blackbird put in an appearance almost as soon as the back door was opened. And she brought with her a baby, who was bigger and plumper than she was, but much slower in feeding. It’s the first of her babies that I’ve seen this year.

By this time last year she and Bertie, the male blackbird, had raised several babies from three broods, all based in nests in and adjoining my back garden. I can only hope that temporary lack of cover there has influenced how many I’ve seen this year, and that the pair have successfully raised more young than this elsewhere.

There has been no sign at all of Bertie since we got home. Just before I went away he was becoming much more imperative in his communications, landing on the edge of the mealworm tub and staring pointedly at me until I fed him. He was very thin, his glossy breeding plumage had faded, and his wing feathers looked tattered and well used. And he was constantly on the alert for cats lurking under bushes.

I’m hoping his absence is due to a spell of moulting. But I’m concerned because of the sudden influx of cats into the back garden. And I don’t know how long blackbirds can live.

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Saturday 3 August 2013

Bella the female blackbird comes to feed quite regularly, and has adopted Bertie’s approach. If I’m slow to notice her presence she comes to stand on the back step when the door is open, looking round to see where I am and what’s keeping me.

A very ragged and unkempt male tried to feed during the morning, but Bella vigorously chased him off. I didn’t see him, but hope it was Bertie, not an intruding male taking advantage of his absence. This hope was faintly strengthened by the sight of Bella chasing off her youngster, when he tried to feed with her.

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Sunday 4 August 2013

Spider's nestThe large spider had been hanging motionless for over a week in the web she constructed from a picture frame. It was only after a day or so that I realised the dots in the web weren’t unfortunate prey, but babies that were very definitely developing into spiders. Then suddenly one morning the adult had gone, leaving a hole at the centre of the web. The tiny perfectly formed young twitched when the strands of the web were touched, and soon they too were leaving, until it hung empty.

Moth and buzzardPictures on the wall seem to attract a variety of wildlife, for only recently I saw a silvery moth settled on a silver frame. Its posture quite unconsciously imitated that of the buzzard wheeling in the picture within the frame.


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Monday 5 August 2013

There he was, much to my relief, tattered and nervous, keeping undercover, Bertie, the blackbirdbut definitely Bertie, the male blackbird in my back garden. Although he came briefly to feed on the terrace near the door when I was there, he was constantly on the alert, hurrying back into cover.

He’d brought another large baby with him, but Bella barely tolerated either of them feeding near her.

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Tuesday 6 August 2013

Now there are three blackbird babies in my back garden. The first comer has already picked up the necessary skills to stimulate mealworm feeding. He imitates his mother, standing on the nearby shed roof or in sight on the terrace, whenever I’m working in the garden room. He does, though, keep a wary eye out for her, as Bella isn’t allowing either Bertie or the babies much access to the food.

Cats are an increasing problem. I’ve already had to fend off the invading tabby, whose light grey bottlebrush tail often gives him away. Clara, the beautiful black cat who’s always come to visit in the front garden, ventures hopefully into the back now. She sits confidently by the pond, waiting for the fuss she’s accustomed to in the front, but I have to chase her off. I hope that she’s going to realise the front is still permitted territory, but the back isn’t.

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Wednesday 7 August 2013

It’s baby bird time again. There was a young blackbird splashing noisily in the upper pool of the waterfall as I sat at the terrace table in my back garden. He paused for a moment, staring at me, looking like a wet soft toy with his still downy body feathers fluffed out.

Sparrow babies are out and about too, looking pale compared to the adults. One likes to crouch like a boneless cloud on the shed roof, his head turned at an awkward angle, beak agape to release body heat. He or a sibling can sometimes be seen following an adult around, beak open, wings fluttering appealingly.

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Thursday 8 August 2013

The adult birds are also taking some time to themselves. Bella, the female blackbird, sat for quite some time on the fence beside my back garden terrace. For a while she just seemed to rest, then she began to preen energetically, probing under her wings, resettling her flight feathers.

At the same time an adult robin came to bathe in the lower pool of the waterfall. He took his time settling into the water, fanning out his tail, fluttering water over his back, wriggling around to send it over his body. His grey head was sparsely feathered, and he certainly seemed in need of some prolonged grooming and ‘me’ time.

And much, to my delight, a solitary long tailed tit came to bathe a little later when the other birds had gone. He has been around for a couple of days, but this is the first time I’ve seen him in the water. By the time he emerged he was looking completely bedraggled and flew up into the juniper to rearrange himself.

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Friday 9 August 2013

Bertie, the male blackbird, has returned quite regularly to my back garden, and Bella tolerates him more now when they feed nearby. They are both very alert to danger, Bertie particularly scanning the ground for cats, Bella peering up into the sky for avian predators.

Blackbird babyTheir absorption is probably heightened by the baby they are still feeding. He seems just as large as his two siblings, but still Bella takes food to him at various perches throughout the garden. Bertie too goes off with a beakful of worms from time to time.

Both adults though feed well themselves before attending to this baby. I can’t work out if the youngsters are all from one brood, and this one is the last hatchling, or if he comes from a later brood.

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Saturday 10 August 2013

The straw stooks rested upright in miniature pyramids in the field just south of Stockbridge. Row after row of them stretched out into the distance like tiny dolmens in a prehistoric ceremonial complex.

It was particularly good to see them here, where so many of the cottages in nearby villages have thatched roofs.

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Sunday 11 August 2013

A squat tailless baby blackbird sat on the back lawn, beak agape; Bella was feeding him from time to time. In between her visits the baby poked around desultorily on the ground. He found grubs and insects, but showed no interest in taking the mealworms himself. Perhaps they were too large for him, his parents always break them down into tiny fragments.

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Monday 12 August 2013

The back lawn was for once full of peacefully feeding blackbirds. There were two males at an acceptable distance from each other, Bella, the female, and a juvenile. Each bird stood at the corner of an invisible square, back turned to the centre, ostentatiously to the other birds too, and fed vigorously off the scattered mealworms.

The peace didn't last for long. A nearby alarm call scattered them, and after that Bella returned to her usual 'repulse all intruders' frame of mind.

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Tuesday 13 August 2013

Thud, thud. Two blackbirds landed on the back of the garden chair together. It's unusual for Bertie and Bella to appear at the same time, and in such close proximity. But the need for mealworms to stuff into hungry young beaks is obviously very great.

Later in the day it became obvious that they are feeding two youngsters from their latest brood, perhaps the only brood this year. One of the babies is the larger bird with a tail that I've seen for a few days, and the other is the latest arrival, the tailless baby. Bertie has taken over chief responsibility for this one and has to tap the baby's beak a couple of times before he realises he has to open it to be fed. Bella feeds the elder of the two, who likes to tuck himself into the juniper. She takes food there, springing up the branches as if she were climbing a ladder, and soon after the tree heaves as she feeds the baby.

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Wednesday 14 August 2013

Although the newest baby blackbird is tailless, his wings are developed enough to allow him to make short flights. Conn on the grassHe whizzed up from the lawn to the top of the fence to follow his father along it, wings beating hopefully, mouth gaping.

He also came to bathe in one of the waterfall pools today. He spent some time standing in it, looking around, then crouched awkwardly. He found it difficult at first to splash water over himself, but gradually sent a decent spray over his wings and back, occasionally staggering in an unbalanced way.

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Thursday 15 August 2013

The original young long-tailed tit has returned with a companion. They sit in the willow, wiping their beaks on the branches before flying off into the juniper. A small brown wren also sat on one of the juniper branches for a second, tail cocked, before hopping onto another and out of sight.

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Friday 16 August 2013

The hedgehog was busy hovering up mealworms on the back terrace in the late dusk, making tiny scratching noises as her claws touched the bricks. She looked as if she'd come out camouflaged for a commando exercise, with tiny green leaves stuck to her spines and a cobweb draped over her forehead. The recent rain had brought down the leaves and damaged webs, and she'd picked up the results on her trip through the undergrowth from her nest.

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Saturday 17 August 2013

All the signs are there. Summer is ending, autumn is creeping up.

Most of the swifts had gone by the time we got back from the New Forest. Now there are not even solitary stragglers passing high overhead. But a faint honking high above the back garden late yesterday evening signalled the flight of a skein of geese.

The wheat fields are being harvested. Clouds of dust almost conceal the enormous combines as they work. Rows of straw line the finished fields, creating patterns of light and dark gold.

And the evenings are cooler, the mornings positively chilly.

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Sunday 18 August 2013

The hedgehog was out on the back garden terrace this morning too. I don't know if she's making the most of moist ground after rain for finding worms, or if she's feeding up to look after babies or to build up her strength for the winter.

Perhaps time will tell.

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Monday 19 August 2013

A sudden noise disturbed the quiet sitting room. Before I had time to think a sooty starling dropped into the room and flew down it to the French windows, battering against the glass.

He rested, dazed, behind the dog bed as I opened one of the windows, drawing curtains over all the others, flicking off the lights at the mains, so that the room was darkened.

At last he looked round considering, almost as if he was interested in the books on the shelves above his head. Two paces that he took into the room made me anxious, but fortunately he turned suddenly and flew straight out of the open window.

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Tuesday 20 August 2013

The purple lavender spikes sway in the breeze, but the bees that cover them just cling on and continue to browse, feeding all the time. In the late evening the bees give way to moths, whose wings blur with the speed of their movement.

The lavender had taken over from the marjoram, which until recently was hosting its own bee feeding party during the day and attracting moths at night. Butterflies also flitted over it in fine weather, with a constant shimmer of movement and colour.

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Wednesday 21 August 2013

It was breakfast time, for me and the birds who arrive as soon as they hear me. And this morning they had company.

The hedgehog trundled speedily up the slope to the back garden terrace. Bella the female blackbird kept her youngest baby out of the way, and they fell in behind the hedgehog. But they all grazed quite happily together of the mealworms, although Bella kept a wary eye on the newcomer.

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Thursday 22 August 2013

A low tapping caught my attention. I peered into the garden room, which I had just left, and saw the eldest of the blackbird babies spread-eagled across the window.

My heart sank, and I feared I had a casualty on my hands. Then I saw he was perched awkwardly on the narrow window bar, and was flapping one wing against the glass to get my attention.

I feel more and more this year as if the birds, especially the blackbirds, are training me to provide both food and security.

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Friday 23 August 2013

Dark clusters of fruit in the hedgerows show where the elderberries and blackberries are ripening. Brush past them and what looks like a dried leaf rises into the air, opening wings to reveal a newly minted Red Admiral or Peacock butterfly, which has been feasting on the fruit sugars.

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Saturday 24 August 2013

Sitting over leisurely tea with friends earlier this week I realised which element of summer has been missing. We were warned before we sat on the wide terrace outside, idly enjoying the views over parkland and distant woods. Tirn, my elderly collie, was happily tucked into a corner after insisting on trekking round the grounds which he has known for many years.

Then the jam was brought out, ready for the scones. And soon after the wasps arrived. In force. Having seen barely one so far this year, suddenly there seemed to be hundreds. The waiter told me that five nests had recently been destroyed, but the numbers visiting the tables hadn't reduced.

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Sunday 25 August 2013

It seemed as if a flimsy white curtain had been drawn back from the bank of leylandii at the foot of my garden, as if a theatrical performance was on offer. But the scene it revealed was one of tragedy, for the curtain was actually a drifting mass of grey and white feathers caught in the branches of the trees.

Last night I went in from the garden at about 8.30. Less than an hour later a mauled wood pigeon was found at the bottom of the garden, the large young tabby cat darting away into cover. A line of feathers led back from the pigeon to the bird table in the centre of the lawn, and I found it hard to imagine what she was doing out there in the dark.

This morning's evidence revealed the full extent of the tragedy. The bird must have been sitting on her nest high up in the cypress, and the cat had scaled the heights to reach her. Once attacked, the bird seems to have tumbled out of the tree, shedding feathers on her way down. On the ground she must have scuttled away for cover while the cat scrambled down behind her. The bird got as far as the bushes under the table when she was grabbed again and dragged back to the garden boundary where the drama was exposed.

Even then I couldn't understand why the pigeon sat and waited to be attacked. Until I saw among the welter of soft under feathers a broken white egg. Then I recalled seeing a wood pigeon flying up into the trees earlier last week, a twig firmly clenched in its beak. The bird must have been sitting on her eggs when she was attacked and one at least of them came tumbling down with her when she fell.

I'm investing in the RSPB electronic cat deterrent, and hope it won't disturb my hedgehogs too.

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Monday 26 August 2013

Sparrows exploded out of the bay tree that shelters my back garden terrace table. And there, carefully climbing into it from the top of the garden fence was Bella the black cat, who ventures in here more and more frequently.

I saw her yesterday sniffing at the soft grey pigeon feathers that covered patches of the garden. The experience obviously spurred her own killing instinct. Keen as I am to prevent her success, still I could admire her strategy. Approaching from the fence cost her less effort and made her less conspicuous. It was fortunate that the sparrows were vigilant.

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Tuesday 27 August 2013

I was suddenly aware of the pale figure on the back garden terrace as dusk grew deeper. The hedgehog was out once more, after an absence of some days, and was busy snuffling up the remnants of the mealworms.

When I looked again she had gone. It was fortunate that I glanced down before moving from the garden table, because she had moved silently down to ferret around my feet.

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Wednesday 28 August 2013

The tiny ghostly shape drifted along the water. Another tottered precariously along an overhanging willow branch before taking the final downward plunge. Both newly hatched moorhen babies seemed to float like flakes of ash on the water after their mother. She was in contrast a clearly defined black figure, smart with her scarlet toque, and seemed quite unconcerned about her chicks' progress.

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Thursday 29 August 2013

When I open the back door a small flock of blackbirds comes scurrying up the lawn towards me. Both the parents, Bella and Bertie, are moulting, but the four youngsters are acquiring their full adult plumage.

The youngest baby is the boldest and has been provisionally nicknamed Conn (to develop into Connie or Connor as appropriate). ConnIt seems that the youngest chick of the last brood is always the one that is allowed to monopolise my attention. Presumably this is because his parents chased away his siblings as they grew, to give the baby his chance to survive. He/she of course had no late-coming rivals to challenge his supremacy, and is now so familiar with me that he comes to doze by my feet, ignoring the mealworm largesse spread around him.

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Friday 30 August 2013 woodland

Only the faint shivering of the beech leaves reached my ears as I walked through the woods. Beneath the trees the bleached feathery grass stretched out around the trunks, like a hidden woodland field of corn. The brightest colour in this quiet place came from the tiny beads of scarlet that were the honeysuckle berries, tastefully draping the view from the ride into the trees. butterflyRinglet butterflies danced in a spiral upwards, gilded in a shaft of sunlight. One or two were more earthbound, lingering on the early blackberries that lined the ride.

On the far side of the beech wood a chalk slope stretched down northwards to the valley below. The slope was lined with hawthorn, clustered thickly under the scattered oaks. The ride itself became like a tunnel, arched over with hazels, shady and still. hants%20004I had given up hope of seeing deer when suddenly one exploded from the long grass just at the edge of the ride. It gave me as great a fright as I must have given it, and I had barely chance to see it as it crashed away into deeper cover.


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Saturday 31 August 2013

The sparrows in my garden are convivial little birds. They have gone from bathing in my pond and waterfall pools to creating a lunar landscape of dust baths nearby.
It started with just one shallow scrape, created by a single bird. This deepened as other ones came to use it. At last there was a squabble about whose turn it was, and a brighter character in the group decided it was time to create his own. Seeing this, the others began to imitate him. And so there it is, a patch of garden under the juniper filling with egg-shaped grooves. It's frequented regularly by a crowd of little birds that wriggle in the soft soil, fluttering it under and over their wings, filling the air with a dusty cloud.


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