Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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Mary Tant, author of the recently published classic crime novel The Gathering Storm, the seventh in her popular Rossington series, writes about the natural world which is so important for her imaginative life.

July 2013

Monday 1 July 2013

Bella, the back-garden female blackbird, settled down on the sunlit lawn near my feet. She opened her wings, turning slightly to one side to spread wide the feathers on one of them. Her body plumage fluffed out, and she lay there for some time, beak open, bright eye shuttered from time to time, clearly enjoying the sunshine and feeling I was protection from marauders. I was strangely touched, for it's taken her a long time to get used to me. Now she's appears before Bertie, her mate, asking for mealworms without waiting for him to do it.

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Tuesday 2 July 2013

My garden is humming with bees, buff-bottomed and wild varieties, just like the ones in the New Forest garden. As I pass shrubs and flowers I have to be careful not to brush the bees off. They're climbing the coral-coloured heuchera spires, circumnavigating the golden globes of buddleia globosa, burrowing into the cerulean campanula trumpets. And everywhere they're making their subdued music, until the garden is filled with it.

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Wednesday 3 July 2013

A young tabby, beautifully marked, with clear green eyes, is one of the cats making a determined assault on my back garden. She was clearly curious as she lurked under a shrub, watching me feed Bertie when he came for mealworms. Fortunately he knew she was there and just stood by my feet and stared at her. Following his gaze I saw a long bushy tail lashing backwards and forwards, just like a large snake wriggling along.

Today I was cutting back the viburnum that has flowered like a layered wedding cake beside the pond. And suddenly revealed was a soft furry heap, with green eyes staring up at me. I left her there as I worked until I saw her creeping towards the pond, fascinated by the sight of a frog that had emerged to sunbathe on the rocks. Then I had to harden my heart and eject her.

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Thursday 4 July 2013

There was a familiar mound on one of the wide rides edging a mixed New Forest plantation. It was already large and seething as it was with a colony of working ants, the mound is likely to be even bigger next time I pass this way.

There have been several similar mounds along this ride in the past, but last year the colonies seemed to have moved out en masse and the nests were deserted. So I'm glad to see activity here again, with many smaller pimple-like humps growing up through the bracken at intervals all along the ride.

In the main one the ants seemed to be larger than the ones I saw on Dartmoor. Team efforts were moving several large twigs and pieces of leaf upwards, while individuals struggled under yellow seeds. These came from the fir trees the mounds always seem to be under, while the nearby deciduous trees don't shelter any.

I spent quite some time at the bottom of the large mound taking photos. When I glanced down I saw my boots were covered with ants who'd come to examine this new presence in their world. They definitely much larger than the Dartmoor ones, and I was quick to shake them off.

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Monday 8 July 2013

The bedroom window still showed the blackness of night. But a clear thrilling sound pierced the stillness. Bertie, my male blackbird in the back garden, was already greeting the new day. His song was a welcome sound to me as I lay sleepless in the hot hours before dawn.

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Tuesday 9 July 2013

There was a thumping of overturned pots below the bedroom window in this morning's early hours, less welcome to my ears than yesterday's blackbird song. It sounded as though there was a very small but determined intruder ferreting around by the french-window steps. I guessed it was probably the hedgehog searching between the flowerpots, as she's adept at searching out food in the garden. She even learned to open the mealworm pot when I accidentally left it outside, but was considerate enough not to eat quite all its contents.

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Wednesday 10 July 2013

It was as if a kaleidoscope had broken apart, so that the bright red and green fragments danced through the air. But the flashing colours came from scarlet tiger moths, lipstick red and emerald green, strongly marked with mascara black, their wings fluttering so rapidly it was hard to count their numbers. At least five of them spiralled wildly upwards around my rose arbour and out of sight beyond the cypress trees.

Every summer they used to feed on the comfrey plants in my courtyard garden, but it has been several years since I saw more than one or two of them in a season.

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Thursday 11 July 2013

There was a distinct trail of dried leaves across the brick path in my courtyard garden, and as I watched I saw who was creating it. The hedgehog was going backwards and forwards with leaves in her mouth, letting the excess slip as she moved.

There has been a large neat pile of leaves between the drain cover in the courtyard and the house, fronted by lovage and figwort, whose stalks keep it in place. I had guessed it was her nest, but I didn't know when she had last used it. Now she seems to be refurbishing it for another stay.

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Friday 12 July 2013

For an instant as I glanced up I thought it was a large house martin. Then reason clicked in as I saw the proportions of the bird hovering low above my back garden terrace. It was a red kite, its eye bright as it surveyed the ground, its tail very conspicuously moving like a boat's rudder as the bird changed direction.

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Saturday 13 July 2013

My heart sank as I heard the sickening scrunch of a bird hitting the garden-room window. He'd been startled off the nyer seed feeder and flown straight at what he thought was more garden and safety. Usually there's a blind concealing most of the glass in bright sunshine, but today cupboards were being built into the room and the blind was up.

So there he was, a beautiful young goldfinch, beak wide, wings and elegant black-laced tail spread out as he lay gasping on the brick terrace.

He recovered more than I expected and eventually had to be popped into a leaf-filled basket and moved out of the heat. He had anyway to be kept within sight, given the increasing numbers of cat that visit my garden. He drank little sips of water, and by late afternoon was stretching and folding his wings. He wasn't steady enough to climb out of his basket, although he tried. When I lifted him out to walk a little he overbalanced after a few steps, slumping down onto his fawn speckled breast.

What he did seem to like was being held against my yellow shirt, whose tone was dimmed by the vivid stripes on his wings. He spent most of the evening perched on one of my hands, resting against my shirt. At bedtime I settled him down on it close to my bed, expecting to have either a very disturbed night righting him if he flipped over, or a quiet one after his death.

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Sunday 14 July 2013

I was woken by faint stirrings in my old yellow shirt that I had made into a nest for the goldfinch who'd flown into the window yesterday morning. And there he still was, rather to my surprise, with his bright eyes fixed on me as he flapped his wings energetically.

It was five o'clock, but I expect that's late for a goldfinch on a sunny summer morning. As he was so lively I took him down to the back garden, sitting out in the silence as he found his feet on the grass. He overbalanced again and again, but gradually grew stronger as he moved around, and pecked enthusiastically at the seeds I scattered for him. He seemed to get stronger and stronger, ceasing to fall over when he moved, and his first real attempted flight mid-morning took him nearly six feet before he nose-dived again.

I was worried about the heat and sprinkled him from time to time with water. As he revived from his second crash landing he seemed to move again without more difficulty than before. Disaster only struck on one of the occasions I lifted him out of the sunlight. Wriggling up through the folds of my old yellow shirt he sat in the cup of my hands surveying the garden from the viewpoint he knew well, close to the nyer seed feeder. Then he took me by surprise, launching himself into the air, and crashing again, this time into the pond.

He flapped under the rocks of the waterfall and I fished him out within seconds, but it was one battle too many for a very doughty fighter. I called him Bevis, after Bevis Grenville, who died fighting gallantly in the Civil War. He's buried close to my previous collie, a position of honour in my garden, and lies on a square of the grass he was so glad to feel under his feet once again this morning.

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Monday 15 July 2013

The sunlit days and evenings are at last hosting more swifts as this year's broods take to the sky. They are generally high up, snatching their airborne prey, but faint sounds of the birds' screaming cries are still audible.

Insect numbers at my level on the ground appear to be higher than normal, but the swift headcount is now about the same, in spite of the reduction in numbers of the original arrivals. There must on some evenings be more than thirty swifts circling overhead, so presumably the breeding season has been good. But my nest box has not been used.

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Tuesday 16 July 2013

The viburnum in my back garden quivered slightly during the windless afternoon. The hedgehog emerged and bent over the pond to dip her nose carefully into the pond. The water level had sunk considerably during the day and she overbalanced, landing awkwardly half in the water where she immediately acquired a green coating of duckweed.

I know hedgehogs can swim and I know there are several ways out of my pond, but still I leaped to my feet. Before I could do anything more, she had clambered out. When I next saw her she was sauntering under the weigela, quite free from duckweed.

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Wednesday 17 July 2013

The bird dynamics in my garden have certainly changed. No longer do I have a wood pigeon adult perching on the courtyard wall outside my kitchen window, eyeing me intently, indicating that food is being awaited. No longer does he bring a youngster to sit there and be fed with milk from the parent's crop.

The adults certainly are still visiting my garden regularly, but the starlings have ousted them from many of their preferred places in and around it. The pigeons have only once nested in the golden fir, and their preferred sunning spots on the upper heights of the fir trees at the bottom of the garden are taken up by the starlings, rather like humans jostling for the best places around the hotel pool.

The branches of these fir trees are rather like cliff ledges, hosting numerous birds during the day when the sun is out or when they are expecting food to be provided. Sparrows take the lower branches, fluffing out their feathers in the warmth, in the places where once the blackbirds and their youngsters sat.

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Thursday 18 July 2013

It was a slow movement, but it caught my eye. The hedgehog sauntered out from under the prostrate viburnam in my back garden. She was quite happy in the bright sunlight of late afternoon, browsing happily on mealworms just in front of my chair as I sat working in the shade under the willow.

Behind me a starling was splashing noisily in the pond. Bertie the male blackbird sat in the apple tree chucking softly, watching this other creature feed on his mealworms. Suddenly he flew down to the lawn and I watched with bated breath as the hedgehog, alerted by the movement, looked up. She scuttled away, Bertie flew off and the feast lay, for the moment, deserted.

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Friday 19 July 2013

The hedgehog seemed to be considering my big toe from no more than a foot away. I didn't want there to be any mistakes about what was edible or not, and I didn't want her too close, so I lowered my hand cautiously into the tub of mealworms. The scattering motion startled her and she disappeared under the viburnum at surprising speed.

But she was soon back, grazing close enough for me to see her clearly, the bright red tick that had jumped onto one of her whiskers vivid against her pale brownness. She has soft brown velvety ears set into the soft fringe under her prickles. From the side these look like round chocolate buttons, from the front they were quite pointedly elfish. Her small eyes are bright and intelligent and the small round shiny button of a nose at the tip of her long snout was raised from time to time, twitching at it smelt out the source of the mealworms.

As she stretched to reach the ones on the ground she sometimes exposed a surprisingly long leg, like a grandma unexpectedly revealing her brown velvet-stockinged limbs. She soon discovered the tub and raised herself up to peer over the edge. This time she allowed me to reach in and bring out a handful for her to eat on the lawn.

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Saturday 20 July 2013

The grunts and snuffles filled the courtyard garden at the back of my house. It was dark, the plants and narrow winding brick path lit only by lights from the windows. But the two dark shapes glimpsed momentarily on the path were definitely hedgehogs, one noticeably larger than the other.

As I stood watching they tootled in and out of the shrubs, coming close to where I stood just inside the open French windows. Eventually they scooted down towards the main back garden and I rushed to the back door to watch their progress. I peered carefully out and there they were, snout to snout just under the rim of my terrace table.

They snuffled around the leaves that collected here, gradually pottering off down the slope into the garden. Soon only a distant snuffling and grunting indicated their presence. I guessed they were a pair, so there's just a chance that the nearby nest in the courtyard garden that was recently refurbished had been made ready for the arrival of babies.

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Sunday 21 July 2013

Bertie, my back-garden blackbird, perched on the edge of the garden table one lunchtime last week, staring pointedly at me, chirruping urgently. When I didn't respond, he sprang down to the seat opposite mine, staring now at the bushes nearby.

Before I could think or move the large young tabby cat burst out of cover and sprang at the bird. Fortunately he flew away as I leaped up yelling at the cat. Bertie perched unharmed in the nearby apple tree uttering his penetrating alarm call as she slunk off.

Today he landed on top of the table parasol, chirruping as before so I got up to look round the garden. And there she was, on the other side of the table this time, the tabby sitting with her thick bushy tail curled around her, her light eyes staring back at me.

Yelling and clapping hands didn't disturb her at all, so I fetched the watering can, sprinkling water as I came. It only takes a little water to touch her and she is off, so I hope she can be trained to stay away.

Bertie, though, is definitely training me to identify and repel cats.

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Monday 22 July 2013

Faint cotton whiskers drooping from his beak made the sparrow perched in the hibiscus look as though she was preparing for a fancy dress party. But she was almost certainly making a new nest or repairing an old one.

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Tuesday 23 July 2013

One of the cats has at last scored in the battle between us in my back garden. When I went out mid morning there was a faint scattering of pale grey feathers under the viburnum beside the pond. Further on there were more, and yet more, small pools of soft grey on the brick path, connected by an intermittent trail that led down the garden and behind the rose arbour to the fence.

Since I was last out here in the early morning one of the wood pigeons has met its end, probably one of the pair that has faithfully bred here for a few years, and regularly brought up their babies under my eyes.

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Wednesday 24 July 2013

Tiny bright flakes of colour flittered about the back garden. First one holly blue, who was joined by a second, swirled under the fir trees. Below a ringlet browsed through the cerise flowers of a cranesbill. A small golden skipper drifted over the guelder rose, then seconds later a much larger glowing gold comma floated serenely by.

The holly blues are regular visitors, but the other varieties only occasionally appear, perhaps coming into the garden from nearby meadows.

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Thursday 25 July 2013

For a moment I thought a scrubbing brush had been left on the step. I hesitated as I closed the French windows, about to bend down and retrieve it. Then I realise it was one of the hedgehogs, who had been grazing on the step, listening to the conversation indoors, and freezing into immobility as I approached. While I stood there watching, a slender snout appeared sniffing at the air, then she slipped silently away out of the pool of light into the darkness of the courtyard garden.

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Friday 26 July 2013

It was a beautiful mysteriously unfamiliar butterfly, flittering around the shrubs in the garden of the New Forest cottage. Rather like a small copper or brown hairstreak in size, it had dark wings, the upper two patched in scarlet, the lower two dotted with the same colour along their bottom edges. I've never seen one like it before, and haven't yet been able to identify it.

Nearby an emerald green damselfly was also enjoying the sunshine. For a second it lifted its tiny triangular face, with its jewelled mosaic facets topped with golden eyes, although its velvety green wings and slender body were never still.

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Saturday 27 July 2013

The beautiful emerald body of a damselfly lay twitching slightly on the mossy edge of the brook that edges the New Forest cottage garden. The tiny face and slender body were still vivid with colour, its wings still looked as soft as velvet, but its thread-thin legs were bent awkwardly as its brief lifespan ended.

I couldn't help but feel that it was the tiny creature whose golden eyes had looked into mine for the fraction of a second yesterday. But nearby another two still darted and danced over the water, making the most of the time they have.

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Sunday 28 July 2013

Iron coloured the water of the brook a rich russet, while sunbeams gilded the midges that danced in a cloud above. Suddenly there was another insect there, huge as it darted among the midgets, double winged like an old-fashioned biplane, resplendent in its golden livery. A dragonfly.

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Monday 29 July 2013

It was a familiar rounded avian silhouette, that of a robin perched on a gatepost. But this was a youngster, his chest still speckled and not reddened. His single piercing call rang out, but although he was on my left the sound seemed to come from the shrubbery on my right. I only realised the two were connected as I watched his beak opening to reveal the pale interior of his mouth, and saw that it synchronised with the sound.

One of his parents was nearby, busy feeding on the lawn after last night’s rain, occasionally foraging for insects in the leaves under the rhododendrons, but generally ignoring the imperative cry of the youngster.

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Tuesday 30 July 2013

It was one tiny chestnut bird that I saw, flitting along the banks of the brook. A wren, darting in and out of the shrubbery with speed and precision. But the shrill conversations along the bank made it clear that more of the little birds were hidden there, presumably keenly waiting to be fed.

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Wednesday 31 July 2013

The ponies were just visible in the distance, lurking in groups behind bushes that edged the brook, and were almost screened from sight. They had retreated from the open forest lawn near the cottage, leaving it to the families who had come to picnic there, avoiding the ball playing, the splashing in and out of the water.

It was only later that they came to reclaim the green space, moving in as the people left. When I strolled past they paid me no attention. One grey sank to her knees and rolled over, wriggling on her back before rising again and joining her peers as they grazed.

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