Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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Mary Tant, author of the Rossington series of classic mysteries writes about the natural world which is so important for her imaginative life.

March 2013

Friday 1 March 2013

The bright white shapes of little egrets seem to be everywhere I go. One wades through the flooded grassland beside a widely expanded chalk river. Another stands silent and still by a small stream that runs through a line of overhanging willows. A third is busy feeding in a water meadow, its sharp black beak stabbing down again and again.

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Saturday 2 March 2013

An abrupt movement on the wall of my back courtyard caught my eye. I looked round in time to see a wren fly into the shelter of the choisya.

Once these tiny birds have been spotted it's easy to follow their abrupt jerking darts through the shrubbery. This one went without pausing through the courtyard and out into the main garden, exposed only briefly as it passed through the willow branches.

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Monday 4 March 2013

It was a field of contrasts under the bright warm sun. On one side the bleached stubble stretched down the field towards the hedge beside the river. On the other, the freshly turned soil lay in dark waves. Between the two worked a tractor, its plough slowly and steadily turning the first into the second. Normally a swirling screaming cloud of gulls would be following it, but today they were absent. The only other movement in the field came from the crows that were pecking busily through the new furrows, no doubt finding a profusion of bugs and beetles.

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Tuesday 5 March 2013

Tiny ridged green leaves were unfurling on the hawthorn in the bright sunshine that filled the garden with warmth. In the woods beyond a chaffinch sang continuously, the notes ringing through the bare trunks. It really felt as though Spring was coming. The trademark soft soothing coo of wood pigeons comes echoing once more down the chimneys. And the light tinkling tones of the goldfinches rings musically through the garden as the flight comes in mid morning to feast on the nyer seed.

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Wednesday 6 March 2013

I wake to the sound of blackbird song now, although it's not the fully developed repertoire yet. The notes are clearly being tried out, perhaps being recalled from last year. The loud alarm call seems to be more frequent during the day and evening too, both from Bertie in the back garden and from Billie in the front.

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Thursday 7 March 2013

It's a quiet stretch of water, a wide pond sheltered by bushes and trees, frequented by a few mallards and a pair of moorhens. Today the surface of the water was patterned with small circles as rain plopped steadily down into it. As I watched more circles appeared, wider and expanding, as fish began to jump. Their bodies occasionally appeared, arching silver under a film of water.

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Friday 8 March 2013

Frogs were croaking in my back garden pond this morning, for the first time this year. They were clearly revelling in the rain that fell heavily for most of the day.

The snowdrops and hellebores are flourishing too. Those growing over the grave of my first border collie are long stemmed and profuse. Lifting the hellebore flowers to look at their colours I find different shades of purple, and white streaked with green and crimson.

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Saturday 9 March 2013

It was dark as I wandered with Tirn, my elderly collie, around my back garden in the early evening. As I paused, waiting for him to investigate a bush, I was surrounded by the sweet scent of the daphne that was covered with clusters of tiny pink flowers. Suddenly a clear song rang out, from Bertie who must have been perched nearby. He's clearly perfected his territorial song.

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Monday 11 March 2013

The bitterly cold east wind ruffled the chest feathers of the two ravens who sat still on the narrow ledge running around the chimney. They were in full sun, which must have been warming them a little in the weather, which has suddenly become wintry again.

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Tuesday 12 March 2013

Bertie, the male blackbird in my back garden, pattered across the frozen pond to drink in the open water under the waterfall. When I went out a little later in the morning there was a flurry of movement there, a pair of frogs kicking their legs upwards as they dived out of sight.

At the far end of the pond the ice was thick and to my horror I saw a fat frog was frozen into it.

I rushed back to the house for hot water and carefully melted the surrounding ice, hoping it wasn't too late for, I think, her. But her eyes were filmed over so I feared it was.

Before lunch I went out again and found the ice was still there, thinner and more fragile, but that corner of the pond was by then in full sun. The frog had drifted a little and seemed to be under the frozen water rather than in it. When I poked the nearby ice with my toe she moved a little, so I felt more hopeful.

After lunch she had gone and when I peered into the water I saw her plump figure sheltering low down between plant stems. I fetched a large tile and precariously perched it over the water, trying to shelter that corner of the pond a little as the temperature was still below freezing.

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Wednesday 13 March 2013

Although it was still very cold the pond wasn't frozen over today. Peering down into the deep end I saw fat legs kicking upwards as a frog out of sight, hiding between the plants. I suspect she's staking out this corner, waiting to lay her eggs here. It's the most favoured spot in the pond, probably because it catches the most sun, when it's out.

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Thursday 14 March 2013

A female blackbird has appeared in the front garden, taking Billie's post on one of the topmost branches of the viburnum or elder. Billie is very busy, guarding his territory, and his strident alarm call rings out repeatedly. Both birds are often in a warning posture, wings ajar, tails cocked. Billie appears on the path or in the bordering lilacs as soon as I open the front door.

The same thing happens in the back garden, only then it's Bertie who waits for me. When I'm busy de-icing the pond or filling the water bowls he hops onto the doorstep and looks pointedly over his shoulder at me. Both birds are very keen for their mealworm rations in this cold weather, so I always feel guilty about going away. Fortunately, I do this so regularly that I know they manage without me. Indeed, I'm fairly sure that they have a number of people trained to feed them.

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Friday 15 March 2013

I saw the first tiny lambs of the year as we drove over Salisbury plain. Clearly newly born, one tottered along beside its mother, pressing close to her flank. Another pranced further afield, still unsteady on its long legs, but confident enough to explore. A third lay quite still in the grass, a very tiny blob of white in the greenness.

The weather was unsettled, grey and cold, on the drive down. The heavy rain began to pound against the windscreen the instant Dartmoor was sighted, a huge dark plateau in the distance.

Once we were driving across the high moor, beyond the rain, I saw further lambs, bigger ones, born some time earlier.

Tirn, my elderly collie, and I got out beyond the moor gate, so he could have a sedate walk around a smooth patch of grass. But he knew the way down to the cottage and insisted on picking his way over the rougher turf towards it, ploughing through brambles, allowing himself to be guided to the easiest way round slithery mud and deep puddles. But his dodgy back legs improved a little as he went on and it was with reluctance that he consented to get back into the car for the last stretch down the steep drive.

Once in the garden he was so pleased to be back that he broke into a little trot as we went round it, inspecting the boundaries.

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Saturday 16 March 2013

The moor cottage seems virtually unchanged since our last visit. But snowdrops swathe the garden, daffodils are nodding their heads by the brook that runs down the valley below, and primroses are just opening at the foot of mossy boulders.

Tirn was keen to be out early this morning and stood looking longingly out at the tor that used to be part of our pre-breakfast walk. Now it's too far for his dodgy back legs, but the memory of earlier outings is obviously still keen.

It's bitterly cold, but we found a sheltered spot so that he could lie out in his bed, covered with a blanket, enjoying the sunshine and moorland scents. He must definitely have noticed the smell of the fox whose grey droppings lie on several tussocks beyond the brook, marking his territory.

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Sunday 17 March 2013

I woke to an alpine landscape, the usual view transformed by a thin layer of snow. The tor above the cottage could have been mistaken for a small mountain, until the snow melted in the intermittent sunshine.

A sparrow hopped busily through the bushes in the front garden, but only tits came to the seed feeders. They were usually in pairs, with the pastel shades of blue tits and the stripy black and white schoolboy caps of coal tits. A great tit came alone, his size dwarfing the others, his colours bright against theirs.

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Monday 18 March 2013

Bright sunshine and a clear blue sky today. All traces of snow have gone. Meadow pipits rose up and parachuted back down to the gorse bushes on the slope of the tor, while high overhead a single lark sang.

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Tuesday 19 March 2013

Three sheep made their way in a purposeful line up the steep field and into the winter-bare trees that fringed the lower slopes of Hamel Down. Hamel DownThey were bright white moving figures against the gleaming green of the field, both colours vivid compared to the muted silvery grey of the beech and oak trunks in the copse and the faded bronze of the moor that swelled above.

Somebody standing where I stood on the lane could have seen these colours during any winter for centuries past. The granite stone walls that separated the fields, running in lines and curves down to the brook, are on boundaries that may have been here as long ago as the huts built by prehistoric peoples on the moorland slope behind me.

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Wednesday 20 March 2013Greenway view

Tirn, my elderly collie, was delighted to be back at Greenway, where so many of Agatha Christie's dogs must have enjoyed the gardens above the river Dart. Tirn can't now walk round them, but he was determined to get to his resting point at the front of the house, where we tucked ourselves into an alcove and enjoyed the view down to the water.

There were signs of spring Christie's magnoliahere, where the lovely pink flowers were opening on the magnolia on the front lawn. On the sloping grass above the lawn tiny daffodils lifted their heads above primroses and cyclamen, creating a carpet of tiny bright flowers.


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Thursday 21 March 2013

All heads turned towards me, hundreds of eyes watched me with varying degrees of interest. The donkeys were all in the barn, sheltered from the rain and sleet that thundered down outside. And they were donkeys of many sizes and colours, little to large, pure white, grey, brown, tapestried.

A big white donkey, Judy, strode confidently towards me, keen to be fussed and groomed. I'd met her an hour earlier and spent time stroking her. She clearly remembered me, picking me out faster than I identified her among the masses. With her came her shadow, Irene, another white donkey, smaller and less confident. These two close friends quietly demonstrated the strong bonds that donkeys can make with another, becoming very distressed if they are separated from each other.

Judy stood quietly while I practised my newly learned grooming skills on her, and Irene pressed against her far side, as close as she could get. The hardest part was picking out the hooves, as Judy is an older donkey, and found it uncomfortable to balance her weight on three arthritic legs, even with my shoulder as additional support.

When Judy was done to the best of my ability the two donkeys changed places so Irene had her chance to be groomed. Judy took up her post, pressed against the far side of her friend, waiting patiently.

As I finished Irene I was aware of a small quiet figure behind me. Turning, I found Jess a pale brown donkey waiting patiently, keen to be fussed and patiently standing still during grooming as the two white donkeys moved away into the herd.

Roger, though, was a different story. He was a large dark chocolate male, a joker, constantly appearing in view, frequently nudging and frisking away. Now he'd decided to be groomed, and I wasn't sure if this was a good idea or not. But he stood well, watching me out of his bright eyes, giving me only an occasional nudge.

As we reluctantly left the barn there was a loud unmelodious braying from behind. I couldn't help feeling Roger was making the most noise, reluctant to see his entertainment disappearing.

I'd spent the day at the Donkey Sanctury training centre outside Sidmouth, learning to be a Quality Time Volunteer. The time with the donkeys was chance to put into practise what I'd learned in the morning, and it was very clear that the donkeys were an important part of the training team. They knew what they wanted and they knew how to push me at least in the right directions.

I found I missed them already as I drove home through lanes running with red-tinged mud that the heavy rain was pouring off the Devon banks and fields.

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Friday 22 March 2013

Wind drove the rain hard across the moor and the cows that were out below Houndtor had found the best shelter they could. In the dull grey gloom they stood on one side of the lane, dim hulking shapes against the stone wall as they huddled under the trees.

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Saturday 23 March 2013

He arrived just before seven this morning, in a wet, cold and foggy Dartmoor, but he was born in shelter of a barn. fog on the moor I expected him to be smaller, this first calf of the year here, but he was a chunky, nicely proportioned youngster. His ruby red coat was just like his mother's, but slightly darker where she had been licking him clean.

She watched us warily, eyes moving from face to face, turning to keep us in sight when we moved from one corner of the pen to anther other. Her son watched us too, but curiously, his dark eyes quite unconcerned. Soon he was feeling more secure on his legs and began to spring stiffly around his mother. Whenever he drifted closer to her, perhaps wondering about suckling, she seized the opportunity to continue the cleaning, her tongue swiping around his legs and across his flank.

He was lucky not to be born outside in this awful weather. Neither mother nor son showed any sign of wanting to go out when the barn door was opened later, so they stayed snug and warm indoors.

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Sunday 24 March 2013

The cottage is marooned in a world of fog and rain. As I travelled across the moor familiar landmarks loomed unexpectedly out of the greyness, strangely dislocated from their normal landscape.

A sudden patch of whiteness in a field seemed oddly bright. Pausing to look more closely under the scanty hawthorns I saw rows of sheep pressed together, nose to tail, as tightly packed as sardines in a tin. They stood there quite stoically, enduring the rain that dripped through the sheltering branches.

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Monday 25 March 2013

The silence was palpable. It was so noticeable that I was aware of it as I walked along the old drove road. After a while it was insidiously invaded by the sound of the East Webburn brook running down towards Widecombe, and then by the pounding in my head as I climbed steeply up towards Honeybag Tor. Now that Tirn, my elderly collie, can only potter around, my own fitness is not as good as his daily seven or eight mile walks used to make it.

But I got to the ridge of tors and there was the tinners' gully I had specially come to find. It was a narrow declivity running across the ridge, dammed with regular mounds of earth, where the tinners ran water through the lode to wash out the ore.

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Tuesday 26 March 2013

Along the lane the hedges have grown icy tassels where cars have thrown up water from the puddles. This has frozen as it landed on the branches, and hangs there in great glittering fringes.

There are shining silver threads snaking down distant brown slopes of the moor, where water pours down streambeds. Near the cottage the waterfall is fuller than I've ever seen it, tumbling down shallow steps to the brook below.

On the tor above the cottage the paths are slick with ice, crunching and splintering underfoot.

A stonechat seemed puzzled as he walked over a frozen pool of water. He bent his head to peer at it, giving me a close glimpse of the bright white flashes edging his throat and his lovely pale pink breast.

In the front garden a pair of long tailed tits came to feed on the peanut holder. Their backs were a sooty back, making the white mark on their heads look like a chalky smudge. Nearby a dunnock lurked in the clematis strands that smother the wall, his grey head striking against the bleached stems.

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Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Devon Ruby cow and calf on the farm are out in a small field at the foot of the moor. They have it to themselves, but mamma takes care to keep her calf safe.

He is sheltered by the corner of the hedge, tucked away neatly behind the stump of a fallen tree. Mamma grazes nearby, alert for any potential danger to her son. She only approaches him late in the day to allow him to suckle.

It's a peaceful life, in an idyllic spot, especially now the rain and snow have ceased.

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Thursday 28 March 2013

A farmer stopped me as I was about to turn into the narrow lane leading up to the cottage. A thousand-strong flock of sheep was heading down between the stone walls, leaving no space for anything else. They were on their way down from the high moor to the gentler pastures near the village.

Later in the evening I leaned over the gate at the top of the moorland cottage garden. In the nearby corner of the field beyond was another gate. Beyond its lichened bars stood a fox, with a deep russet brown coat.

He looked at me, considered the gap at the bottom of the gate, raised his head to judge the height to the top bar. He looked again at me, and sauntered off out of sight behind the wall, heading for the small valley below the cottage.

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Friday 29 March 2013

Tirn, my elderly collie, knows that we leave today. He made three determined circuits of the garden, before lying outside the cottage staring longingly up at the tor. He has wanted desperately to go up to the top again, and on one walk along the lane made it clear that he was going to try, regardless of his dodgy back legs. We made it a short distance up the steep rocky ascent before I was able to detour him down again.

This morning his walk along the edge of the lane was prolonged. The trails of a thousand sheep and a least one fox must have been tantalising. But mainly he was reluctant to leave the moor.

Each time I tried to get him into the car he indicated he wanted to walk on further. Eventually he stood by the open door, his head lifted, drinking in the scents, before climbing up his ramp.

He's always loved it here, a wild open space that perhaps reminds him of his birthplace on the Isle of Eigg nearly 16 years ago.

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