Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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Mary Tant, author of The Gathering Storm, the lastest murder mystery in the Rossington series, writes about the natural world which is so important for her imaginative life.

June 2013

Saturday 1 June 2013

A much younger sparrow, very newly fledged, crouched on the bricks of the terrace. His rudimentary wings fluttered in a blur of movement, his beak gaped. And a slender adult ran backwards and forwards, collecting fragments of mealworm to feed him.

This may be a younger sibling of the two more developed youngsters I saw yesterday, from the brood that was born in the house martin nest box. Or he may have come from a different nest that I haven't yet seen.

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Sunday 2 June 2013

The bluebell leaves quivered and heaved. A small hedgehog emerged, snout down, snuffling through the yellowing carpet of celandine leaves under the hibiscus in my back garden.Young hedgehog

From time to time she seemed to pause, closing her bright little eyes and seeming to bask for a few seconds in the warm late afternoon sunshine. Around her smart topcoat of brown and white prickles she wore a fringe of long softer pale coffee-coloured hair like a fashionable scarf.

When eventually I moved carefully to fetch my camera she froze, watching me out of tiny intelligent eyes. Then she turned smartly and moved swiftly out of sight, her little legs holding her body clear of the ground. Hedghog drinkingShe tucked herself between thick jasmine stems that made a neat little arbour against one of the woven hazel panels of the fence. It was a space that she just fitted into, and once there she wouldn't have been noticeable at all if I hadn't seen her enter it.

A little later, confident once again, she walked purposefully up the garden alongside the fence towards the shed. Expecting her to come out on the far side, I anticipated her, moving swiftly to spot her when she emerged from its shelter.

When there was no sign of her I went cautiously back to peer around the front of the shed. There she was, among the yellow Welsh poppies, stretched over the rim of my swan bowl to drink the water in it.

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Monday 3 June 2013

A flake of blue seemed to float across the sunlit greenery of my front garden; a holly blue butterfly, its cerulean colour always making it noticeable in spite of its diminutive size. I was surprised to see it here, as these butterflies are usually visitors to my back garden, attracted perhaps by the spindle and dogwood that grow there.

I am though letting ivy grow in certain places in both gardens, to provide more habitat and food sources. This might be the front garden attraction at the moment, as I believe the holly blue can belie its name and lay its eggs in ivy. There is now a thick bank of this beyond my lilac trees that may be very convenient.

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Tuesday 4 June 2013

Cow on the commonCows moved slowly across Hungerford common, which buttercups have turned into a field of gold. One or two of them grazed on the pasture in the open sunshine, with the flowers dusting their legs with pollen. The main herd were browsing under the branches of the avenue of trees, and were looming shapes in the shade. Large dark eyes turned to watch me as I watched them. Tails flicked occasionally, clouds of midges danced madly in and out of sunbeams.

I don't visit this common below the downs as frequently as I used to, Cows with calfnow that Tirn, my very elderly collie, finds walking here on the uneven turf too uncomfortable for his arthritic legs.

But I passed by it today, in one of its more striking displays, and paused to let Tirn sniff the air from the car for a while and enjoy a place he knows well.

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Wednesday 5 June 2013

By early evening the sky above my garden is filling with swifts, up to a dozen now. But the familiar screaming call is still missing, as the birds are flying high, not swooping and diving low above the trees.

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Thursday 6 June 2013

A loud plop startled me as I passed my garden pond. One frog had clearly taken fright at my presence. Another, however, still crouched on the upper stones of the waterfall, unblinking eyes staring at me as he enjoyed the stream of water that ran over his back into the pond below.

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Friday 7 June 2013

I sat in the shade of the pyracantha at my small terrace table, working on my laptop. In the upper branches of the bay tree to my right, Bella the female blackbird was fluttering about her newly constructed nest, lining it with moss. To my left, Bertie the male blackbird was splashing in the topmost pool of the waterfall, flapping his wings to send water over his back.

Robbie, the slender robin, appeared suddenly at the edge of the table, fluttering in surprise to see me so close. He landed on the rim of the mealworm tub, cocking his head expectantly at me before flying down to the bricks of the terrace to wait for supplies. He's more aware of my presence here than Bertie, who still approaches the open back door to look for me, only spotting me under the tree when I whistle to him.

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Saturday 8 June 2013

The starlings have arrived in force. The first milky brown youngsters have been brought to the garden in a squalling hustling group.

One parent led the way, landing in the willow above the pond. He was so closely followed by one baby that the young bird landed on his parent's back, before scrambling in undignified haste in the neighbouring branch.

Soon the birds were on the ground, pecking and probing, sometimes just cocking their head and peering around. It's when it comes to communal bath time that their noise really reaches a crescendo. They scold and squabble among themselves as they jostle for position, jumping recklessly into the water to splash around in the shallows. Starlings are the only birds to bathe communally in my garden pond and waterfall. All the other birds wait for a private solitary moment or stand in a queue until it's their turn.

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Sunday 9 June 2013

Tiny sounds like the ringing of miniature bells were coming from the climbing hydrangea that covers the fence along the side path. Peering through the large leaves and thick clusters of creamy flowers I saw a dark shape in the serpentine stems. It was a beautifully formed goblet, presumably with very new babies in it. And there between two leaves was the curve of a black head and the bright yellow of a pointed beak. Billie, the front garden male blackbird, was there, frozen into absolute stillness, presumably having urged his babies into relative silence when I passed along the path. This is his and Binkie's second nest this year.

I am less certain of the progress of the back-garden blackbirds in the breeding routine. The nest Bella was building in the bay tree beside my terrace has been dismantled. I don't know whether she did it, deciding to move vital materials elsewhere, or whether a predator raided it. I do think she's sitting on eggs somewhere though, as she's normally only visible in the garden in late afternoon forays for worms or visits to the pond.

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Monday 10 June 2013

There it was, a tiny black foal keeping close to his grey mother.New Forest foal His legs were so long that he had to splay them apart when he reached down to graze on the grass of Janesmoor Plain in the New Forest.

The small herd of mares moved slowly across my path, coming to rest almost in front of me. The youngster decided this was the ideal place for a quick nap and carefully folded his legs until he lay on his stomach. Securely down he rolled onto his side, laying out flat, exhausted with the new business of being alive in a big world. The mares grazed around him, and there he lay, quite content, except perhaps for the midges that made him repeatedly flick his short furry tail.

This was the first foal I've seen in the New Forest this year. Over the next few miles I saw another seven, generally individually in small groups of mares. The foals' arrivals seem to be later than last year.

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Tuesday 11 June 2013

A sandy figure trotted past the bay window in the New Forest cottage where I sat this evening, half-hidden by the long purple wisteria racemes that dangled in thick clusters outside. For an instant I thought it was a large cat. Just as I realised it was a fox another appeared coming up the steps from the brook through the brightly coloured azaleas, wearing a vivid russet coat, his eyes and the tips of his ears coal black. The first was the vixen, who had taken the high path above the shrubbery, this was without doubt a male in full breeding colours who had taken the low path alongside the brook.

No wonder Tirn, my elderly collie, finds the scents in this garden so stimulating – not just one fox outside the front door, but two of them.

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Wednesday 12 June 2013

Tirn is so excited to be back at the New Forest cottage, border collieand today we are celebrating his sixteenth birthday here.

When we arrived earlier in the week he was determined to walk from the forest lawn all the way along the lane to get here. Once in the garden he went round and round the old routes, investigating scents, following trails through the long grass at one end of the main garden, pausing from time to time to sniff the air. Then he lay on the lawn in the sunshine, quite happy just to stay there.

While I sat with him I was able to listen to the sound of the waterfall,Rhododendrons fainter now than in the winter months. The air is thick with the honeyed scent of the wisteria that covers one side of the cottage, thick purple racemes dangling low enough to brush my hair. Rhododendrons, so nondescript in the winter, are heavy with huge flowers now, the wild purple gradually invading the bushes that strobe with magenta and ruby. Salmon pink and orange are the predominant colours of the azaleas that grow closer to the house, mingling with a superb tree peony bowed down with the weight of its giant creamy yellow blooms.

And there, salmon pink chest vivid among the buttercups and daisies threading the lawn, was a familiar figure. A bullfinch in his black cap, standing like a sentinel watching me and my dog.

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Thursday 13 June 2013

One of the little bay New Forest foals lay on the verge beside the road, his head bowed as if the constant drizzle was too much for him. Another similar foal was standing disconsolately under a nearby hawthorn, but at least he must have been dry. In the dim grey light there were five or six mares grazing nearby, quite unperturbed by the weather, which they must after all have grown accustomed to.

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Friday 14 June 2013

The herd of young heifers was crossing one of the New Forest roads. The first few had skipped across confidently, the next lingered uncertainly, and galloping anxiously up over the plain was the one who'd been left behind. She was a pure white, compared to the tan, black and cloudy grey of her companions, and she was loudly bellowing the bovine equivalent of 'Wait for me!'

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Saturday 15 June 2013

A black-headed gull skittered sideways on the mud, blown by the wind as it attempted to forage on the mud estuary of one of the channels leading to the old salt pans. Further on, an avocet seemed unconcerned by the weather; smart in its black and white plumage it swept its curved beak backwards and forwards through the shallow water at the side of a pool.

The full force of the wind hit us once we were on the causeway leading through Farlington marshes on the seaward edge of the New Forest. In the water filled gravel pits on the landward side, birds were sheltering where they could. Swan's nest on islandA row of mallards lay on a bank, heads down, facing the wind. One attempting to fly past was blown to a standstill in the air and glided down at last to join his fellows. Swans shone clearly against the greenery, one hovering behind a small islet of reeds. On the next islet another swan was in a cleared space among the reeds, marshalling her four tiny grey cygnets around her.

Some birds were active in spite of the wind. One pair of swans had decided to take their own small cygnets out, and the whole family seemed to be making headway against the wind. The parents must have been paddling strongly, Swan family on waterbut the cygnets bobbed around behind them without obvious effort, sheltered from the force of the wind behind the adults' bodies.

A grey heron stalked like a ghost through a bed of reeds beyond a pool where his gleaming white egret cousins stood motionless against the bank. And in the lee of the causeway a duck brought out her brood of tiny black and white striped duckling, looking like tiny motorised humbugs whizzing across the pool below us.

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Sunday 16 June 2013

The bird flew up suddenly, startling me as I passed under the leaves of a crack willow. Just ahead a hazel overhung a meander in the brook, and there was a branch that stretched above the deep wide pool on the outer edge of a gravel ridge. It was a perfect perch for the kingfisher that had been sitting there, surveying the water below that was lit by the sinking sun.

I only saw him for an instant, his back midnight blue in the gathering gloom as he flashed out of sight. But there was no doubt I had spoilt his fishing.

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Monday 17 June 2013

The beautiful cerise breast was stilled, not a feather was ruffled on the tiny body that lay on its back with a broken neck beside the summerhouse.

The bullfinch who had stood watching on the lawn when we arrived last week had made his last flight. He must have hit one of the summerhouse windows at full speed, perhaps seeing his own reflection and thinking it was a rival.

That there was one about was certain, I had seen them both facing each other earlier in the week. It didn't take long for the survivor to move in, perching on the paddock fence to look over the newly vacant domain.

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Tuesday 18 June 2013

bee on pyracanthaA gentle persistent hum filled the garden around me as I sat near the heavily scented pyracantha bush. Wild bees hovered over the clusters of white blossoms, flitting from tiny flower to tiny flower. Buff-bottom bees were more methodical, working their way over the clusters, weaving in and out of the leaves. And for a brief change in pollen diet, both kinds of bees dropped down to meander through the white clover near the bush. bee on cloverOr they might venture further afield, drifting down to the paddock to slip between the curving heads of the wild yellow iris that have colonised the course of a small stream.

A slender robin came to patrol the foot of the bush, jumping up from repeatedly to snatch tiny insects that were also drawn to the pollen. Occasionally he hovered above a low spray before diving into the bush. At last a plump youngster emerged to imitate its parent, springing up and down to catch his own food.

bee on irisIt was on the pyracantha that last week that I saw two tiny shapes in viridian green. It was as if two flakes of greened copper roofing from an ancient church had come down to drift over the barely opening buds, before spiralling together from time to time in a frenetic aerial dance. This is the first time I've ever seen green hairstreak butterflies. And they haven't been back since.

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Wednesday 19 June 2013

Suddenly he was there, entering the garden stage like an actor from the wings, the deep russet dog fox that I saw last week. He was loping confidently across the main lawn of the New Forest cottage, down through the rhododendrons to the gate onto the paddock and the open forest. Once he paused, looking back, completely oblivious to me as I sat on a bench beside the cottage late in the evening. I had a fine view of his bright alert eyes scanning the corner of the garden, where some noise had caught his attention.

He and his mate have cubs in a den under a nearby field shelter. They're quite tiny cubs, but creatures full of confidence who come to play on the lawn of the nearby cottage. They saunter nonchalantly down the lane late in the evening to join their parents, which explains why the adults are out and about such a lot – all those hungry mouths to feed.

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Thursday 20 June 2013

There was a flash of white high up in the oaks that line the brook, where a little egret had come to land in the canopy branches. Below, a kingfisher utilised the branches that overhang the water, his presence betrayed by his bright turquoise back.

Late this evening he came to perch on one of these, over the pool below the waterfall. He sat there for some time, occasionally shifting position, exposing the chestnut of his breast, and the white markings on his head. Once or twice he shuffled along the branches between the hazel leaves until suddenly he dived, straight down into the water.

He emerged onto a branch closer to the fall, briefly visible there with a tiny silver shape in his beak, before he disappeared into cover to eat his supper.

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Friday 21 June 2013

bog cottonWhite bog cotton tufts wave over the marshy meadow, like the pennons of an approaching army.


orchidMarshalled against them on slightly higher firmer ground are the pink pyramids of common orchids. Last week these were just tiny stubby flower tips, now they've reached their full height and splendour with tiers of tiny spotted pink flowers.


Tirn has Tirn on the lawntaken a lingering stroll past them on the edge of the open forest lawn, one drawn-out patrol round the New Forest garden, for the car has been packed and he knows that we're leaving.



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Saturday 22 June 2013

There's a bleak stony corner at a road junction that has moments of great beauty; now is one of them, when it hosts a city of floral spires. Blue viper's bugloss predominates, the colour of the Madonna's robes in mediaeval paintings. Its name indicates the use it once had as an antidote to the venom of the adder.

Lower in height, more subdued in colour are the delicate creamy spikes of weld, that seem to float below their more striking companions. Its flowers once provided a yellow dye, giving it the lovely name of Dyer's Rocket, instantly indicating both its use and its shape.

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Sunday 23 June 2013

Bertie and Bella, the blackbird pair in my back garden, were on the doorstep first thing this morning. Bella only comes to be fed occasionally, but Bertie appears more frequently, looking very thin, although his sable coat is still beautiful.

He is definitely taking away mealworms, broken into tiny pieces and wedged in his beak, flying over open ground beyond my garden and out of sight. It's a dangerous amount of time in view of predators such as the magpies, and I hope the babies will soon be out of the nest and under cover elsewhere.

I found that two new young cats are happily visiting the garden, and had to be encouraged to tear their attention away from the birds and leave empty-handed. Clara, the lovely black cat who comes to be fussed occasionally in the front garden, also sauntered confidently past my chair at tea time and mewed pitifully when I told her to go away. She was visiting the front garden long before I shared it with another blackbird pair, but knows that she should not be in the back garden.

The front-garden pair has nested successfully twice this year, although the first nest in the laurel was right next to Clara's favourite scratching post, the trunk of the elder tree. That must have been unnerving for Binkie, the female blackbird when she was sitting on her nest only feet away.

And Clara's visits can be very awkwardly timed. She appeared for fussing once when Billie, the male blackbird, landed right in front of her on the path, expecting his mealworm treat from me. They both stared at each other in shocked surprise, and Billie flew off just as I scooped Clara up into my arms.

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Monday 24 June 2013

The pigeon made his way precariously down the tiers of tree roots that grew along the bank. It was a quiet isolated spot, where the ash tree grew at the junction of the river and the canal. Other than the fluttering of the leaves in a slight breeze and the ripple of the current in the water, not a thing moved other than the bird.

Slowly and carefully he went down, his soft pink and grey plumage almost blending with the grey green of the bark. At last he reached the bottom root and found a convenient dip in it, so that he could bend over and sip the water he had worked so hard to reach.

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Tuesday 25 June 2013

Late this evening the hedgehog was at the bottom of the garden, where I had been cutting back poppy heads and digging up a few weeds. There was still a scattering of mealworms across the lawn and he was busily sniffing them out and gobbling them up.

Robbie, the robin, was watching from a nearby branch, nipping down now and again to snatch one for himself.

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Wednesday 26 June 2013

It was like the mirage of a creamy column, where the overhanging branches of an elder tree held their wide panicles of flowers out to meet their reflection in the water below. The branches and their images shivered, and out from cover of the real branches sailed a moorhen, the red plaque on her head vivid in the dimness beside the bank of the canal. And behind her came buzzing three tiny balls of black fluff, each with a miniature version of the red moorhen insignia on their heads. Mother sailed off like a ship of the line, babies hurrying along behind her like busy tugboats.

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Thursday 27 June 2013

A large prehistoric shape hove into view, a heron, its wide wings beating slowly and heavily as it swept in unhurried flight across the sky. Below the bird, which was a darker grey shape against grey clouds, the New Forest paddock was bright with colour. The bright yellow of buttercups predominated, but closer too the rust-red of dock and sorrel was very noticeable.

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Friday 28 June 2013

A wood pigeon edged cautiously along the slender branch of a young oak tree. Clenched firmly in his beak was a long twig, held upright like a walking stick. It gave him the appearance of a tightrope walker, although his plump figure belied his agility.

He was heading towards the nest that was almost concealed at the end of the branch, woven into the cluster of leaves that grew there. The female was settled on the nest and received the twig graciously. Whether it was a hopeful token and she'd rather have had a beakful of corn there was no way of knowing. It may have been just what she needed to make her nest perfect.

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Saturday 29 June 2013

It hovered just in front of me, at eye height, wings a blur as it maintained its position, seemingly staring straight at me. It looked just like a small plump bee that had gone mad, and was assessing just the spot on my skin to dive bomb.

In fact it was a hover fly mimicking a bee, and appeared just to be curious, having probably not seen me sitting at my back-garden table before.

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