A buzzard has taken up residence nearby. I've seen it from time to time flying low through the trees near the cottage. But now that the weather has improved it's come out into the open forest. One of its favourite perches is in a stand of trees near the brook where it has a wide view over the open lawns and scrubby slopes.
As I followed the line of the brook the bird swooped down low over my head, into a sweeping flight backwards and forwards over the water. It perched in a spindly oak further down for a while, then flew off low over the scrubby slope on the far side of the brook.
Back in the cottage garden, Tirn, my elderly collie, has recognised the signs of departure. He takes me round and round the garden, visiting his favourite spots, following the route the fox uses. Then we go out into the lane, up and down several times, checking the verges and the fox chute under the neighbouring hedge.
There's no trace now of the snow that lay heavily when we arrived two weeks ago. Tirn was so excited to be here then, and there's no doubt that he's reluctant to be helped into the car to leave now. But then I don't want to go either.
Little grebes floated in pairs on the long stretch of lake, mingling with mallards and moorhens. The little birds flip their tails to dive, then bounce up again like toy ducks surfacing in a child's bath.
Further along a flock of small birds ran over the smooth turf of the wide lawns, racing towards the water. Seen in silhouette against the bright sunlight they looked surprisingly like peahens. Once on the water they swung round against the current, the white blazes on their black heads identifying them as coots.
The garden at The Vyne in Hampshire has been a favourite place of mine since I was in my teens. And Tirn, my elderly collie, has walked with me for many years through the neighbouring woodland. This though is less useable for him now because of his arthritis, so visiting the garden has become an attractive option when I am in the area.
A huge flock of white birds swirled and settled on a greening field. Their sharp outlines and flight style identified them as seagulls, at least a hundred of them. They could have come inland if the weather was poor on the coast, but there may well be a rubbish tip nearby to attract such numbers.
The chalk river flowed fast and clear, widened into a channel beside the lawns of the ancient house. Dogwood grew in red-stemmed clusters over the far bank, giving way further down to the yellow branches of willow. In a distant field the winter-bare branches of a tall lime held clusters of mistletoe, all dark shapes against a bright blue sky.
This was at Mottisfont in Hampshire, where mistletoe also grows in the trees of the formal lime avenue at one side of the house that grew out of the old abbey. The limes stand in two short rows, their heavily pruned branches showing striking knobbly outlines at this time of the year.
Tirn, my elderly collie, actually enjoys garden visits now. When he was young he used to find them extremely frustrating, but the days when he could race about are gone. Smooth lawns are much easier for his arthritic paws, and the scents are so interesting that he maintains a surge of enthusiasm that takes him a comparatively great distance.
Snowdrops are growing in profusion along the verges of the lanes leading to the downs. And alongside an old track in a valley the white flowers spread out like snow under the spindly trunks of an overgrown copse.
Indeed, I think there may have been a garden here once, as privet billows in great mounds along a hedge line, and piles of tumbled bricks can be spotted among the greenery.
Coots were grazing in numbers on the lawns beside the long lake of The Vyne, and a few adventurous birds had ventured into the parkland beyond. Those birds feeding on the water were bringing up great strands of green weed in their beaks, thinning it out before swallowing it.
The old wasps' nest was a beautiful creation, made purely out of wood chewed by the creatures. Mainly a bleached creamy colour, the upper arches were highlighted in shades of brown and terracotta, reflecting the use of different woods.
There was a long shape outlined on the top of a bare tree beside the lake. Puzzled, I considered it for a while. It wasn't right for a little egret, and was too small for a heron. I decided it was a cormorant and turned briefly away. When I looked back the bird had gone. But then, arrowing across the sky above the parkland came two distinctive shapes. A pair of cormorants.
I rounded the corner of the country road and nearly drove into a large flock of rooks. They flew up all around me, thirty or forty of them, circling low and settling down again on the tarmac as I drove on. I couldn't see anything on the road, so wondered what had attracted them in such numbers. Perhaps a little grain had fallen from a passing lorry, but there was no obvious sign of it.
A large bird landed awkwardly on the frozen earth clods in the field. The white markings under its wings caught my eye, otherwise its colouring blended perfectly with the soil. But I was able to watch for a while as the buzzard walked awkwardly over the rough ground, peering downwards all the time.
I stopped occasionally to lift the snowdrop heads and peer at the beautiful patterns the petals concealed. The garden at The Vyne has drifts of the flowers, edging the approach from the car park and colonising the grass underneath the shrubbery. I identified at least three different types in one small patch, and especially enjoyed the Snowflake flower head like a small delicate fritillary bell.
Once again at dusk I have a blackbird perched in the branches of my front garden viburnum. I don't know if this is one of my regulars, Billie or Bertie, or perhaps an incomer. Whichever it is, he's quite happy with my presence and keen to be treated to mealworms.
The blackbird relationship in the back garden has changed again. Bertie has come into his own after a winter of being harassed out of range. Now he confidently visits the terrace and bathes openly in the pools of the waterfall. The female, Bella, comes less frequently and tolerates Bertie's presence when they're both around at the same time.
The tall trees were laden with rooks, perched high in the branches. Beneath them one or two birds were inspecting the nests of last year's rookery. It looks as though the breeding season is underway.
The river spread like a glittering grey sheet across the water meadows. It flowed fast and silently, and only one creature moved on its surface.
The bird floated without apparent effort, an odd dark silhouette that was conspicuous on the surging silver mass. It was a greater crested grebe, its long neck and protruding crest very distinctive in the dull light that drained colour from the landscape.
The pigs moved slowly across the churned earth of the field, pale pink shapes against the light brown soil. Over their heads flew a cloud of lapwings, their black and white plumage very bright against the grey sky.
The lawn beneath the cedars was littered with pale brown seeds like wood shavings. Shallow pits showed where some creature had been searching for food, perhaps a squirrel, perhaps a badger.
Only a short distance away the lines of earthy mounds swirled in eccentric patterns. Moles had been busy underground, creating their own fortifications to mark the routes they took.
A few rooks sat on the tips of the trees in the copse. Another bird came flying in over the common, a large twig clenched in its beak. Nest repairs have started.
The huge bird burst out of the hedgerow in front of the car. As I slowed, it turned away, gaining height quickly. Its back was a rich chestnut, its tail clearly forked, and in its talons dangled a small furry corpse. A red kite with its prey, probably a rabbit from the field beyond the bushes.
Bertie, my back garden male blackbird, is in resplendent breeding plumage. His feathers are a sleek and glossy black, his beak and eye rings a bright yellow. He is more his prime male self now, coming to wait conspicuously by the back door if he sees me in the garden room.
Bella, the female, is still a dominant figure. She generally allows him to feed near her now, but occasionally still chases him off to a greater distance.
Another pair of blackbirds appears from time to time. Bertie tolerates their presence for a while, but Bella is uncompromising and vigorously chases them away. The pair of thrushes that venture in from time to time get the same reception.
In the front the male blackbird is definitely Billie, who I suspect is Bertie's sibling. He's in breeding plumage too, although this is less magnificent that Bertie's. It's duller, less sleek. But he takes his old post in the viburnum waiting for me to appear in the mornings. He's usually there too when I return from trips. This morning he moved to the lilac that borders the path to the gate, almost close enough for me to touch as I put out his mealworms.
Mallards huddled under trees beside the lake, sheltering from the icy cold as well as they could. A select few stood in an unhappy row along the branch of a willow that grew a few inches above the water.
Further out, tufted ducks floated in a tight group, their white wings gleaming in the dull light. They simply kept their places against the current, moving as little as possible, not even to feed.
White flashes gleamed on the foreheads of the coots too, as they scurried across the grass and floated in loose patterns on the lake. They were the only seriously active birds. The territorial imperative drove a few of them, so that they powered forward in the water, bodies pressed flat, heads lowered menacingly, the white flash on their heads looking like an arrow darting towards the intruder. Two or three of the dominant birds floated in their own clear spaces, hurrying forward to drive away other birds, not even just another coot, that dared to enter their territory. The weaker birds would usually hurry off, swimming in much the same fashion but in a more flurried manner. Confrontations were rare – as yet.
The bleached grass grew from huge tussocks around the lake. The ground was marshy, pocked awkwardly with hoof prints. Few people had been past here recently, and I realised why as I picked my way carefully over the wet and clinging mud.
A sudden movement caught my eye. There on the turf between two tussocks a cock pheasant crouched close to the ground. His colours hadn't got their breeding brightness yet, but he was still very conspicuous. He kept his head turned well away from me, perhaps on the principle that if he couldn't see me I wouldn't see him either. But his very pose, as flat as he could get, showed him to be a wily survivor of the winter shooting. No bursting out into the open for him, unless he was absolutely forced to. I moved slowly past and when I looked again he had gone, swiftly and silently into the shelter of the grass.
A leaden sky and a faint mist haze dulled the colours of the hedgerow. Except for the branches of one willow tree that shone like silver with furry grey catkins. Nearby, in a sheltered corner, a blackthorn was veiled with delicate white flowers. Both firsts for this year.
Suddenly my back garden is alive with birds. The willow above the pond is full of goldfinches, their colours bright against the lichened branches. Below, the water seethes with movement as a party of sparrows bathe in the shallows. Drops of water fly around as they shake their wings, before perching on the mossy rocks to dry out.
Further down the garden a pair of wood pigeons plod around, although they put on quite a spurt of speed when the male begins to pursue the female.
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