Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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Classic-crime novelist Mary Tant, whose latest murder mystery in her Rossington series — The Gathering Storm — was published in the summer, writes about her love of wildlife and wild places.

October 2013

Tuesday 1 October 2013

The river runs wide and fast over its bed through the water meadows. It’s a chalk river, the waters crystal clear, showing the various water plants that grow in submerged forests below the surface. The long streamers of the plants stretch out with the current, but seem to quiver and flicker with life of their own. They host a range of minuscule aquatic life that feed the brown trout the river is famous for, and attract a variety of water birds to feed.

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Wednesday 2 October 2013

duck houseThe village green has perhaps the most perfect village pond that I’ve come across. A large thatched duckhouse sits in the centre of it. Several duck resting trays edge the fringes of the water under the weeping willows. The ducks even have a muddy beach of their own, the most popular spot last time I was there.

A scarecrow is king of the scene, flanked by an artificial heron next to the ‘No Fishing’ sign. But the real heron obviously took no notice of this. He had found a comfortable perch and stood hunched there, quite at ease on the platform around the central duck house. heronOccasionally, aware of being watched, his grey shape moved, taking on life as the yellow-rimmed beak emerged into prominence. But resting seemed to be the order of the day, for him, and the pair of ducks sleeping on the grass, as well as the flight of white pigeons that circled in to the far end of the pond.

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Thursday 3 October 2013

A stand of reed mace holds its tall brown heads upright beside the river, as if it’s taken to smoking cigars. On the far side of the water there’s a thick stretch of reed waving feathery flags in the wind. reed mace headAn adult little grebe, its head ruby bright in the sunshine, flickered in and out of its stems, hotly pursued by a large grey baby.

This thicket of reed must be a haven for the smaller water birds, a hidden forest of routes that they can disappear into. Once the birds were aware of my presence they hovered beside it, barely visible on the darker rim of water beneath it, ready to dart out of sight in an instant.

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Friday 4 October 2013

Bright white streamers fluttering behind the tractor made its ploughing seem like a festive event. And for the seagulls it must at least have been a seasonal one.

Some of the birds settled in large groups on the richer brown soil that had already been turned over, making it look as if snow was already falling. But the vast majority of the birds were strung out along the line taken by the plough, where the paler soil was being cut in gently curving waves.

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Sunday 6 October 2013


A pair of swans rested on the dark water of the river, unconsciously creating a bright contrast to the deep green plants that streamed below the surface around them.

In contrast to their tranquillity the small birds were busy. A moorhen scooted backwards and forwards from the reeds. But it was three pale young little grebes who were most active. They rode the centre of the river, bobbing under the water time and again, leaving a flurry of bubbles to mark their diving. Their emergence was less conspicuous, generally some distance away and closer to the reeds lining the bank.

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Monday 7 October 2013

Wide curving banks were rebuilt along the river some years ago. They were created with hazel hurdles, behind which soil accumulated and plants became established. Ducks restingIn one of these bends a small willow has become established over a clump of tussock grass, which look like huge overgrown toadstools.

The speed of the water slowed down with the growth of the bends, the undermining of the banks decreased, gravel banks grew up along the curves. And the hurdles make a useful resting place for ducks, who can sit in a companionable huddle above the flow.

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Tuesday 8 October 2013

A sudden flash of colour and movement caught my eye as a very large trout arced high out of the water, droplets glittering around him before he splashed back into the river and disappeared from sight. He jumped again, moving downstream and closer to the far bank, and then he was gone.

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Wednesday 9 October 2013

The creature was only briefly visible, a small form almost flat to the surface of the canal. The furry body undulated like the rippling water, but cut across it to disappear into the reeds; a water rat.

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Thursday 10 October 2013

A flash of bright white was dazzling against the green of the water meadows and the river running past copses of sallows. It was a little egret, launching itself heavily up from the rushes that had screened it as I passed by.

A little later I was startled by two large low-flying birds, Heron on the bankalso startled from their vantage points in one of the sallow copses. The herons were young, and looked ungainly as they struggled to gain height.

I watched them as they followed the line of the river, the latter bird swerving off to land in an inlet. The leading bird swung round to see what his companion was doing. He obviously didn’t like the location, for a few minutes later he was dangling like a crane fly on the far side of the river, his long pink legs hanging as he looked for a spot to land.

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Friday 11 October 2013

Ploughing has finished in the field I passed last week, and the turned soil has faded to a pale chocolate colour. This week the tractor that moved steadily up and down was pulling a seed planter behind it.

The birds had changed too. There wasn’t a gull in sight, but a small flock of rooks hovered at a distance, some on the ground, others watching from the air.

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Saturday 12 October 2013

Little grebe on waterShrill hectoring announced the presence of little grebes somewhere in the reeds beside the river. For such small birds their voices penetrate far afield and betray their existence long before I see them.


Little grebe in weedI counted twenty this time on a short stretch of river. Three of this year’s siblings foraged together up the river; in its lower stretch another youngster rested on a floating bed of waterweed, drifting gently away on the current.

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Sunday 13 October 2013

Tirn, my dear old collie, lay just inside the garden room. The back door stood open for his last moments on this earth, bringing in the scents of the garden he has known nearly all his life and the soft smell of the rain that was falling gently outside. And there, all of a sudden, was little Conn, the youngest blackbird baby, his head cocked, chucking softly, the first time he has appeared since we came home.

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Monday 14 October 2013

Newly sown fields were the colour of ploughed chocolate below the track leading up the downs. Downland hedgerowThe hedgerows edging the fields were just showing the first hints of autumn colour. Above them arced hen pheasants, their spread brown wings only slightly paler than the fields beyond.

Black elderberries glistened in the scrub on the slope above the path. The thickets there were threaded in places with badger slides, shiny from use, marked here and there with clawed grooves.

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Tuesday 15 October 2013

Several trees were brought down and shattered some years ago when Tirn, my collie, and I walked regularly on the ridge path of the downs. Some keeled over in strong winds, exposing broad root masses bound in chalky clumps.Bracts on oak stump One was struck by lightning, a young oak that was turned into a blackened shell in an instant.

Over time they’ve provided shelter from rain, seats to perch on to picnic, a framework for ivy and honeysuckle to grow. And now one, bordering a junction on the path, hosts a mass of fungus bracts.

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Wednesday 16 October 2013

A wren is the most frequent visitor to the back garden at the moment. She perches in the willow above the pond, her tail cocked perkily over her back, resting for just a second before she flits off into cover.

The robin comes quite frequently to the same tree and peers hopefully through the garden room window. But when I open the back door to scatter mealworms he flies off with nervous haste.

Bella, the female, is the most frequent blackbird visitor and although she’s edgy she waits to be fed when the door opens. Bertie, the male, comes occasionally, and Conn, this year’s youngest baby, has only come back once recently.

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Thursday 17 October 2013

Thatched ridge with wagtailsA beautifully thatched roof, with an artistically edged ridge hosted a line of birds like tiny topiaries. All equally spaced, all wagtails facing east, black against the light.


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Friday 18 October 2013

holly berriesThick clusters of bright red berries stud the branches of the holly trees in the New Forest, as I come to stay here for the first time without Tirn, my collie.

On the forest lawn near the cottage the ponies have gathered in large numbers, more than I’ve ever seen here before. Further west, at Fritham Plain, I passed the end of a forest drift, some of the gathered ponies tucked away in horseboxes ready for the sales. Here, by the cottage, the drift has already happened, as evidenced by the neatly clipped tails, showing the pattern for the agister in this area.

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Saturday 19 October 2013

The evening sky was thick with woolly grey cloud, draining the light from the scene. The forest brook ran dark between its curving banks, cut into the wide green lawn. Here and there the water reflected a bright patch of sky, the ripples golden above shallow gravel banks.

And overhead flitted the bats, tiny shapes just above my head, darting backwards and forwards, but generally following the line of the water.

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Sunday 20 October 2013

The young buzzard who appeared on the New Forest lawn in the spring has clearly staked out a territory here. He’s occasionally to be seen low in the air, wings beating slowly as he moves from tree to tree in a long circuit above the slopes that rise beyond the brook. More often he sits on the wide grassy banks that border the brook, like an oversized thrush, an incongruous figure among the grazing ponies. And he behaves like a thrush too, or one of the crows who often prowl the ground near him. One of these recently had in its beak dismembered parts of a smaller bird.

From time to time the buzzard runs forward suddenly, stopping sharply, then he pounces on something on the ground. He patrols up and down the banks, sometimes taking off to swoop low over the ground for a short distance. Then, and when he’s stationary, he utters a muted simulacrum of the cry that usually rings out over the sky. Presumably it’s frogs and small rodents that he hunts like this, perhaps using less energy staying on the ground than he would expend soaring in the air.

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Monday 21 October 2013

In the evening, Changing treesresting under the sycamore at the end of the New Forest cottage garden, the mild night air is thick with silence. There’s the faint roar of the waterfall in the brook and the rustle of the leaves overhead, turning scarlet and yellow now, as if the tree’s head of hair has punky highlights. A cow bellows from the fringe of the distant woodland, to be answered by a shrill equine whinnying. Silence falls again, Maple leavesto be broken by the repeated call of a tawny owl.

A distant glow strengthens behind the grey cloud covering the night sky, showing the rising path of the hidden moon.

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Tuesday 22 October 2013

Beech woodsCopper beech leaves carpet the forest hollow and holly bushes add a deep green screen. The trunks of beeches tower upwards, their branches reaching skywards like the carved arches of a cathedral, supporting a roof of living shimmering green leaves. Here and there a golden leaf spirals downwards to settle gently on the carpet of its brethren.


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Wednesday 23 October 2013

The mass of ponies here on the New Forest lawn last Friday dispersed within twenty-four hours. Some have gradually drifted back, bright new reflective collars around their necks, Wet ponypresumably a legacy of the recent drift. A rather damp youngster, chocolate brown with a smudged forehead star, regarded me curiously before lowering his head to graze. Nearby another almost identical youngster lifted his head, a clump of grass in his moving jaws as he too stared.

The more these ponies feed now, the better chance they’ll have of surviving the winter. And winter is surely being heralded now by autumn, with the changing leaf colour and the clusters of berries on holly and ash trees.

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Thursday 24 October 2013

New Forest fungiThere was a pounding of fallen objects as the wind rattled through the oak trees and acorns fell heavily to the ground. Under my feet in the plantation were tiny toadstools, their brown caps almost disguised by the leaves and wood they grew among.

As I walked along the layer of acorns under my feet crunched crisply. The pigs will eat these now that they are out in the forest. The pigs are outNearby I’ve seen two large sows, an Old Spot and a Large Black, with another, a British Saddleback in an adjacent field. This one has a litter of piglets, which I’ve seen scampering down the field to their mother, eager to suckle. It only takes one piglet to start the rush, the others see it on the move and don’t want to miss out.

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Friday 25 October 2013

People striding purposefully with baskets towards the nearby forest copses are bent on mushroom hunting. Two years ago there was a glut of penny buns in the oak copse near the cottage, and each morning I’d bump into at least one picker. I’ve only seen the occasional unusual mushrooms here this year, although there are more field mushrooms on the grassy lawns. There seem to be more hopeful pickers than before, but there is a strict restriction on picking, it should only be for personal use not commercial gain. This year’s glut, though, is much deeper in the forest, accessible only to those who walk a considerable distance.

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Saturday 26 October 2013

There are two medium-sized pigs foraging in the copses and on the slopes just beyond the New Forest cottage. I have frequently met them beyond the cottage paddock, rings in their noses to prevent them rooting up the ground. They’ve concentrated furiously on eating grass and crunching acorns when I’ve met them. A scratching postUntil, that is, they see me, when they rush up to sniff my feet. Then they lean, one against each of my legs, to scratch their sides. I’ve learned not to let one rush between my knees, keen to rub both his sides at once. When this first happened, I quickly realised how easy it would be to be borne away, sitting backwards, on a slightly bigger pig. The picture shows the moment before that realisation, one leg being utilised as a scratching post by both pigs.

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Sunday 27 October 2013

The rising wind ruffles the cypresses at the foot of my back garden, while the more slender trees bend before it. Autumn leaves swirl round until finally settling on the ground and over the pond. And there in the water a single large frog rests on a rock, her upper body out in the air, the remainder below the surface. She stays like that for a long time, almost as if she’s enjoying her sheltered spot in the sun, but out of the worst of the wind.

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Monday 28 October 2013

The robin sat in the branches of the escallonia for some time before taking the plunge for the first time. Literally, for he had been considering the tempting pool of water that filled the birdbath I brought home from Dartmoor to sit squarely in the centre of my front garden.

Once in the water he dipped and ducked energetically, flipping water over his back and under his wings. Crystal droplets flew in a frenzied shower all around him as he moved, until suddenly he’d freeze and hop onto the rim of the bath to peer all around.

Feeling safe, he’d dip back into the water and start all over again.

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Tuesday 29 October 2013

It was like an aerial display team at a show. But this was a flight of thirty or so starlings, in a tight diamond-shaped formation. They wove smartly round trees, shooting up behind the branches into the open sky, curving up and down and out of sight over the fields, then re-emerging a mile or so away still practising the same routine, still in the same pattern.

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Wednesday 30 October 2013

New Forest stream New Forest applesNew Forest donkey

The heavy wind and rain has affected the New Forest scene around Janesmoor Plain. Water flows clear and fast down the grassy streambeds towards the brook. Tiny hard green apples lie in pools beneath the trees. Golden leaves litter the green rides, with others still falling in an idle spiral.

And while it’s dry the pigs are out nearby, joining the cattle and ponies on the open pasture.A line of donkeys walks stoically along the side of a lane, their heads and backs damp from the undergrowth they’ve been grazing under.


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Thursday 31 October 2013

Once there seemed to be deer here everywhere I looked in this part of the New Forest, clusters of does just visible in the gloaming under the trees, a single stag, the light catching his antlers as he lifted his head sharply to stare at me.

New Forest gladeTirn, my collie, walked down this green ride with me for so many years, pausing beside me to wait and watch silently when the deer were in sight. And now I walked here alone I was giving up hope of seeing any deer at all.

But at last I was lucky. Two pale does paused for an instant, framed by the arches of the willow that screened the open glade beyond the ride. As I crouched slowly for a better view they took fright and bounded away out of sight.

And then, in the first copse I passed on my return route, I was lucky again. There was that remembered movement, the lifting of a head laden with pale antlers as a stag turned to watch me.

I passed slowly and carefully by, feeling eyes watching my every move.

I emerged into the next long stream-divided glade, feeling that was surely my lot for the day, to be startled by an irritable snort from the thicket on my right. I backed away instantly, still slowly and carefully, my eyes fixed on the bushes until they were out of sight. It may have been a large pig concealed by the bracken, but it was more likely to be another stag, approaching in cover to challenge the male below. Much as I’d like to have seen him, I didn’t want to get caught up in the action.

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