The leaf beside the pond moved and a large frog peered out. His mottled olive and brown skin blended well with the drying leaves, and I must have disturbed him as I weeded nearby.
He considered me for a few seconds, before taking an enormous leap, clearing a large rock to land cleanly in the pond. There he was briefly visible, doing a strong breaststroke through the water.
The frogs seem much more active now, and I’m pleased to see that they’re appearing in different sizes. Later on a tiny one sprang in seven-league boot strides across the lawn, showing briefly as a dark shape against the grass like a toy on a spring.
Sparrows lined the guttering and flitted in and out of the thick jasmine bush that covers the wall of the house. They were apparently fascinated by my work in the courtyard garden below, twittering softly to themselves as they watched.
The gossamer strands shivered in the light breeze, catching my eye as I walked down the path. As I looked more closely between the plant stems I saw the strands were also moving because of the action taking place at the heart of the web.
A spider was tightly hugging a bluebottle, his legs folded right round his victim as he wrapped it up. The gleaming colour of the fly was gradually obscured as he was compressed and reduced to a bound food package that was then stored in the web, ready for consumption at any time.
The noise was sudden and startling this evening, a huge cackling from dozens of beaks, sounding as if it came from just above and beyond the leylandii at the foot of the garden. It went on for half an hour, but not once did I catch sight of the geese who were making it, presumably returning from their feeding grounds in the west.
Just after eight in the evening a pale pink cloud drifted slowly across the blue sky. It was shaped like a vaporous octopus, its tentacles reaching out, dissolving, reforming. Across it streamed line after line of geese, flying eastwards to the lakes in the old gravel pits.
At first they came in arrowed formations, high in the sky. Then single lines came beating after them. Pairs followed, individuals, then more arrows.
For more than an hour the birds flew over, and every one passed in complete silence.
The blackbird babies were feeding on mealworms beside the viburnum as I sat in a garden chair in the back garden late in the afternoon. It was a peaceful scene, the sun still warm on us all.
Conn, the youngest fledgling, was nearest to me, and I saw him freeze. An instant later the young tabby cat sprang at his closest sibling and all the birds scurried and flew out of sight.
My yelling distracted the cat, who shot back down the garden and through the hedge. But I’m alarmed that she can appear so suddenly without my noticing, and that she shows such unconcern for my presence among the birds.
An excited grunting, chuntering noise made me look down quickly. There beside the terrace table, at ten thirty in the morning, was the hedgehog, happily hoovering up mealworms.
It’s unusual to see her during the day time, so I assume she’s come out after last night’s rain expecting a feast – unless it kept her in her nest and now she’s making up for lost time.
She’s getting used to grazing beside me, and has started to sit calmly under a gentle fall of mealworms as I add to the ones the birds have overlooked. But I don’t want her too close. A couple of evenings ago when I saw her she was first scratching behind one ear, then along one flank before concentrating on the other, where the itch seemed to be worst.
I was working at the garden table early this morning, with little Conn, the youngest blackbird baby beside my feet. He’s a quiet, confiding little bird, much smaller than his siblings, with a distinctive chuck rather than their lighter calls.
Then the tabby sprang from the nearby flowerbed, startling us both. Conn flew away, I hope unhurt. I scrambled out of my chair, but the cat had gone as quickly as she had appeared. She’s a real hunter, slinking through cover, keeping low to the ground, before bursting out with a turn of speed.
The RSPB electronic cat-deterrent was installed yesterday and doesn’t seem to be affecting the hedgehog. But obviously it’s not putting off the cats either, so it’s probably not in the right place, and must be moved somewhere more constructive. Siting is difficult, partly because of the number of shrubs, many planted to provide nesting cover, and the slope of the lawn.
As I write this at lunchtime, little Conn still hasn’t reappeared, so I can only hope he’s just frightened, and not hurt.
Little Conn, the youngest blackbird baby, reappeared just as I was finishing tea in the garden yesterday. He was very nervous after his close call with the cat in the morning, and only stayed for a few minutes.
This morning he came to join me for breakfast on the terrace. His whole family were feeding nearby before I became aware of his distinctive soft chucking by my feet. He had tucked himself out of sight behind the table, sheltered by a bank of pots and enjoyed a stream of mealworms, and some cheese pieces I had prepared as a special treat.
The blackbirds are all on high alert. One of them always seems to be on a high post, scanning the garden. Little Conn has taken his turn, emerging slowly from cover on the berberis to perch in the open on the apex of the shed roof.
It was a landscape of gold and black; the gold of the shorn wheatfields, the black of the crows gleaning among the stubble. Two of the birds perched atop a tower of hay bales, surveying different sectors of the field, while their brethren fed safely on the ground below.
A little further on the scene was subtly different. The open field stretched down to where the hay bales had been built into a castle, while the crows were strung like jet beads on a necklace along a double pair of wheel ruts in the stubble.
Little Conn uttered an alarm call for the first time today, from his post on the shed roof, alerting his family and other garden birds to a threat he’d seen in the sky.
The ground threat though is severe. The electronic cat-deterrent seems to be working, as the tabby sits just out of range beyond the lower lawn, watching the birds. Her ears twitch as she tries to work out what the noise is and where it comes from. But today she became bolder.
First I saw her dart across the lawn towards a bird under the viburnum. I don’t know if the noise deterred her, or if she was startled when I flung open the back door and yelled at her.
Then in the early evening I saw her beautifully coloured smoke-grey-and-white little face appear around the edge of a pot on the terrace. Her eyes were wide and interested, no doubt because of the birds that were busy there. The opening of the back door sent her running off, but she had clearly crept through the shrubbery edging the lawn and so avoided the electronic deterrent.
The deterrent is now being moved around regularly, to see if the uncertainty of the noise source puts her off. But sadly in a last minute burst of gardening before leaving for the moor, I cut through the black wire, leaving the deterrent useless. So I’m reluctantly going away, leaving the blackbirds to their own resources in the fight to survive the marauding cats.
Two identical faces stared at me as I arrived at the moor gate. They were chestnut brown with wide eyes and fur-fringed ears, which stuck out at right angles. One face was that of an adult cow, the other that of her small sturdy calf.
They both watched curiously through the mizzle as I drove slowly by towards the Dartmoor cottage. This sat waiting, nestled among greenery dulled by the overall greyness of the late afternoon.
Today’s bright sunshine gleams off the yellow streaks of gorse on the slope of the moor. Clusters of scarlet berries dangle from the ash trees at the top of the Dartmoor cottage drive.
The banks of shrubs that screen the narrow brook are tinged with yellow, where a beech is changing into its autumn garb. The water is virtually hidden by thick grass and the overhanging strands of brambles that glisten with dark berries.
Overhead a flash of chestnut reveals a kestrel hovering above the bracken. Wings beat hard to keep it in position, then it stoops down for a closer look, flying up immediately in a wide heightening curve. It hovers still higher up, almost invisible against the curve of distant moor, and then vanishes from sight into the sky.
A line of sheep led to the distant tor above the Dartmoor cottage, edging the ancient track Bronze Age men took between their fields. This leads to a favourite spot where Tirn, my elderly border collie, and I used to sit to enjoy the view on our pre-breakfast walks. As I approached it alone today, with Tirn beside me in spirit, but actually resting at the cottage, I found a scene that would have engrossed him.
A black-faced sheep peered down at me between two rocks, affronted that I should be encroaching on his feeding ground. Two more sheep were more sanguine, continuing to enjoy a peaceful rest on their sunny ledges. Yet another pair stood close together beneath a stack, watching my movements, ready to dart away.
No matter that I turned my back, no threat at all, to look down to where I knew the cottage lay just out of sight. When I turned round the sheep had gone, and the grassy top of the tor and the rocks that littered it lay silent and empty.
The wind was so strong that it almost flattened the ranks of bracken to the ground. The hawthorn that I leaned against shook, sending shudders through my back. Once out on the open moorland slope my hat blew off and had to be crammed down again hard over my head. The sheep had gathered in the centre of Tirn’s tor, lying on the grass in a tight group, sheltered by the surrounding rocks from the worst of the weather.
A foal lay quietly in a patch of sunlight on the moor, wide curious eyes fixed on me. Nearby her watchful mother stood in the lee of a gorse bush, also keeping an eye on me. Hers, though, was more watchful. The two moor ponies had chocolate brown coats, which matched perfectly.
Beyond them the land sloped away into a wide bowl, where cropped grass was threaded with reed-lined streams, all running down to the brook below. In the middle distance the moor rose, fringing the low bowl with a rim of jagged rocks and tors.
This is a favourite spot for the ponies, and I come often to see them here, especially when the youngsters are born. It’s the place where I’m sure to see foals resting, tentatively trying out their long legs, cautiously venturing further afield, beginning to play chasing games with their peers.
A small patch of the moorland slope showed through a natural frame. Mountain ash berries brightened one side of it, the dark shape of an oak edged another, while the top was crowned by the rocky mass of the tor.
There, right in the centre of the frame, a buzzard perched on the very top of a dead tree. But unlike a painted picture, the subject of this one moved, spreading her wings, preening industriously, checking her tail feathers. Then she just for a while, seemingly enjoying the air. Until I looked away for a second. When I turned back, she was gone and the frame showed simply a moorland landscape.
The full moon rode slowly up the flank of the moor, like a huge lantern dangling from an invisible hand. Partially screened at first by the ash trees screening the brook, soon the golden globe emerged in all its glory, still rising slowly until at last it perched above the tor.
The delicate but persistent mizzle lifted abruptly and sunlight broke through onto the moor. Suddenly there were darting birds in the air, all around me. They were swallows and house martins migrating south and west, pausing here to chase insects.
There was total silence in the garden of the Dartmoor cottage. Not even a breath of wind shivered the leaves of the trees. But suddenly there was a shrill scolding nearby.
I turned to see a wren busily dipping under the roof of an outbuilding, in and out, pausing to check the guttering that ran beneath. Her scolding was answered by a piercing cacophony from the thick berberis further down the garden. And from another berberis came a more muted call, so there were clearly at least three young wrens feeding here.
Early this morning both the sheep and the cows were grazing the slope above the Dartmoor cottage, operating in segregated groups. The gingery brown and cream cows were almost invisible on the lower slope among the bracken and gorse. Higher up, among the rocks and clitter of the tor, the sheep gleamed bright white against the grey. Presumably the shorter grass on the top of the slope suits them better than foraging among the undergrowth lower down.
The moor is showing increasing signs of autumnal abundance.
The oaks edging the lane to the Dartmoor cottage are heavy with ripening acorns. The mountain ashes are bowed down with their clusters of berries.
Blackberries glisten in their prickly thickets. And at the foot of the slope, a solitary apple tree bears rosy pink fruit.
The wheel speeded up, water spurting as it turned, and the paddle steamer moved off down the river towards the castles that guard the entrance to Dartmouth harbour. A sky-blue ferry ploughed backwards and forwards under the embankment where I sat with Tirn, my elderly collie. Occasionally a tiny yellow water taxi putted past, bright as a wasp. Across the river, boats were thickly stacked in the pool below the tiers of painted cottages in Kingswear.
But it was on our side, the Dartmouth side, that the sleek dark figure appeared. It curved smoothly in and out of the water as it swam steadily out after the steamer towards the sea beyond the castles. A harbour dolphin.
The calls echoed through the dark night as I stood in the garden, like small boys practising their bird sounds. First one tawny owl called from beyond the tor above the Dartmoor cottage, then another further south from the high moor. The sounds came regularly, each ringing out from another point until they had come full circle, back to the bird beyond the tor.
And by the cottage wall crouched a large brown toad, another creature that prefers the night. He had frozen as soon as he was aware of me, head turned away, but one beady bright peered over his shoulder, assessing my intentions. Certainly he would not be keen on a closer encounter with the owls that still called out around the moor.
Wisps of mist drifted across the garden of the Dartmoor cottage this morning, slipping away from the thicker blanket of greyish white that covered the slope of the moor above. From its depths a single rook cawed raucously, loud in the silence. Otherwise all I heard was the water in the brook running down the valley below the cottage, and the call of wrens from the berberis in the garden.
The gorse has burst into full flower while we’ve been at the Dartmoor cottage. Today as we drive away huge swathes of yellow cover the slopes, providing a brightness that even the thick mist can’t obliterate.
A pair of plump moorchicks sat cosily together on a grassy edge above the canal, surveying the narrowboats lining the banks. Beyond them a pair of adults, glossy in black, each perched on one leg, enjoying a peaceful interlude while the youngsters were resting. Further along, another fat juvenile was playing lookout, perched precariously halfway up a slender branch the stuck almost vertically out of the water.
A solitary sheep lay on a bare patch of earth beneath the sheltering branches of a hawthorn, her shorn coat perhaps making her keen to keep out of the rain. They were the only visible shapes on the wide narrow slope below the downs, faintly ridged with vertical lines where hundred of sheep have walked over the centuries.
The apple tree in my back garden is loaded down with fruit. Virtually every branch is lined with rosy little globes, and some are so heavily burdened that the branches are bent towards the ground. Those apples that have fallen to the ground have clearly been pecked by birds and gnawed by the hedgehog, but there’s been no sight of either since I got home.
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