Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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The Witness — Mary Tant's latest classic-crime novel in her Rossington series — has just been published. Here, she writes about her love of wildlife and wild places.

April 2014

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Spring14_%20009The soft yellow of emerging cowslips is barely noticeable in the longer grass of The Vyne’s orchard. But once I spot the first of the flowers I soon see there are many more. And low down on one of the apple trees are great clumps of green mistletoes, like oddly misshapen fingers stretching from the silver-lichened branches.

Nearby I saw two male blackbirds, each at different times, Spring14_%20008flying off into the cover of either a huge cedar or a clump of bushes. Each had a beak full of worms harvested from the turf, so it appears they were already feeding nestlings. And their caution was well founded, because a much larger black bird, a jackdaw, landed close to the cedar and paced up and down.


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Wednesday 2 April 2014

A froth of soft yellow pussy willow catkins arched over the mellow red bricks of the old railway bridge. The line of the disused single-line railway below was almost hidden by the waves of white blackthorn that fringed it on both sides.

Just looking at the explosion of spring colour on the banks made me wish I could still ride a train down there to Winchester.

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Thursday 3 April 2014

Spring14_%20010The first delicate pink-veined wood sorrel flowers have opened on Newtown Common, under the trees of its wooded edge. Sprays of wild cherry light up the still bare branches of the trees.

Purple patches can be spotted among the stones and twigs on the newly cleared upper common, where violets have unfurled Spring14_%20011their petals in the sunlight. A light clear green veil shimmers in the breeze that ruffles the silver birches that fringe this area.



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Friday 4 April 2014

As far as I could see ahead the pale brown tree trunks stretched towards the sky. Bracken lay in crumpled russet folds across the ground. Nearer to where I sat on a fallen tree the enclosure ditch was full of dried oak and beech leaves. The air was full of birdsong, piercingly clear medley of notes giving way periodically to a chattering and then to loud insistent repeated calls. The only movement was on the trunk of a distant tree, where it looked as though an invisible hand was pulling a black mark up the bark as a nuthatch worked its way over the crevices.

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Saturday 5 April 2014

A large buzzard flew up heavily but silently from the ride in front of me to perch in one of the nearby beeches. The towering log stacks in this Hampshire woodland have been cleared very recently. So the small creatures that sheltered there were disturbed and must have had hurried searches for new places of safety, away from the searching eyes of predators like the buzzard.

The bluebell leaves are creating a rich green carpet under the bare beech trees in the plantations. These have been managed for many years and the light coming through the canopy encourages the growth of wildflowers. At the moment the banks edging the plantations are edged with clumps of white wood sorrel. Once I’d spotted them here I knew what it was when I saw an occasional silvery gleam on the ground further under the trees.

It was when we walked into the furthest, quietest, plantation that Bryn, my young Border collie, became fixated on scents. He was fascinated by the crushed grass where at least one deer had rested overnight. But when he became nose down on a trail I had to call him back, because I knew that hares often shelter here. And there one was, suddenly leaping up out of cover and bounding off. He was not in too much haste so that I had time to see him clearly and notice the distinctive black marks on the tips of his ears.

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Sunday 6 April 2014

The vast field was lush with new green shoots, and stretched towards the hazy line of hills on the horizon. There didn’t seem to be a living creature in the landscape until a plover flew across the near view. Dipping and weaving in great curves, its wings flashed black and white, vivid against the scenery, the only thing that moved.

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Monday 7 April 2014

Four mallard drakes flew in together to perch on the stone walls of the Bishop’s Palace at Wells. A little later as I walked round the moat I saw two of them neatly settled for the night on the grass verge beyond the water, safe under the walls from the night’s predators.

The sound of bells filled the air as I passed the west front of the cathedral. A flock of pigeons flew past in tight-knit formation, up, over and back, just like a squadron of display pilots.

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Tuesday 8 April 2014

I picked my way carefully along the narrow path, skirting the puddles as I rounded the tower on the edge of the Bishop’s Palace gardens in Wells. There, all of a sudden, was a flash of turquoise just in front of me as I startled a kingfisher into flight over the moat.

Further round a swan floated gracefully under the palace garden wall, occasionally upending to search for food among the waterweed. In a distant corner, in a protected sheltered spot by the garden wall, another swan sat on a thick nest of twigs, arching her neck gracefully from time to time to tweak one of them more neatly into place.

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Wednesday 9 April 2014

The earthen path wound through the trees, but Bryn, my young Border collie, was desperate to explore all the tracks that led off of it. All around us under the bare canopies were sheets of wildflowers, swathes of white wood anemones like drifts of unseasonal snow, golden celandines like scattered hordes of sovereigns waiting to tempt passers-by.

Birdsong filled the air, but as I sat on a fallen tree trunk in a sunny glade I saw a pair of ladybirds mating on a dog’s mercury leaf, close to the discreet flowers. For some time I watched a silent female chaffinch moving cautiously around the ground and low bramble bushes. Finally she selected one small white feather and flew off with it in her beak.

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Thursday 10 April 2014

A couple of evenings ago a pair of wood pigeons sat huddled together on a garden wall overlooking the serene peace of Wells cathedral green. One rested her head on the other’s breast, while her companion gently nibbled the feathers around her throat.

Yesterday the cathedral‘s creamy stone glowed in the late afternoon sun. Pigeons flapped their wings against the stone, pairs mating with precarious skill on the narrow ledges of the west front, watched over by the unseeing eyes of saints and kings.

Today a group of wood pigeons sat in rows on the branches of a lime tree that overhung Wells’ Bishop’s Palace moat. They took it in turns to glide down to a protruding rock beside the wall and perch on it to sip briefly at the water.

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Friday 11 April 2014

Bright sunshine illuminated the water of the Bishop’s Palace moat, revealing the shoals of minnows that swam there close to the surface. Here and there the tiny fish clustered around pieces of bread, their number increasing until the white was surrounded by a writhing halo of black.

A pair of seagulls flew in, screeching loudly, as they settled on the water near a couple of their fellows. Their calls broke the general quiet on this grassy area, where passers-by chat or sit on the benches overlooking the moat and the pale pink stone of the palace and its walls.

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Saturday 12 April 2014

Robbie, the robin in my back garden, has noticed that I work in the garden room again now that it’s warm enough. He came to his usual post, perching in the branches of the willow above the pond, his head cocked as he looked at me, waiting for me to open the back door and put out mealworms.

Later in the day he came down to the arbour where I sat over tea. I watched him collecting tiny fragments of food in his beak, taking them away to feed his babies.

Robbie is a much more obvious presence now, more alert to my activities than Bertie the male blackbird. I’m not sure whether it’s Robbie who visits the front garden too. I watched a confrontation in the birdbath. The incumbent robin was getting ready to flutter his wings in the water when a pair of great tits came to visit. One perched on a nearby rose, but the other advanced to the rim of the birdbath. There was a trifling advance and retreat session between the two birds there, until the robin moved back to the rim and watched the great tit bathe.

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Sunday 13 April 2014

I’ve recently passed two of my favourite roadside sites. There’s the small roundabout where the grass is almost hidden by the buttery yellow of the cowslips that grow thickly there. A sense of height is given to the scene by a small lime tree at one point near the edge of the roundabout, while two topped pines create a focal point on the far side.

And there’s the verge outside the lodge gates of Savernake House, on the fringes of the forest outside Marlborough. At this time of year it is artistically washed pink with a carpet of lady’s smock.

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Monday 14 April 2014

Walking back up the street late yesterday evening I saw a small shape scurrying across the pavement. At first I thought it might be a rat, then I realised it was a small hedgehog, dashing into cover under the hedge.

Then today the first two swallows of this year appeared over the field at the end of my road, darting backwards and forwards over the long grass.

And in my garden pond the tadpoles have emerged safely from their jellied eggs and disappeared into hiding wherever they can find cover. There isn’t much this year, as Bryn, my young Border collie, has discovered the joys of water, especially running water, and the playthings he can find in it. When he isn’t running up and down the waterfall he’s fishing for plants and pots in the pond, reaching out incredible distances with his paws and moving considerable weights too. At least he didn’t really fancy frogspawn after his first tentative attempt to eat it. He’s still at the stage where everything new goes into his mouth. Whereas the large tabby cat that I found by the pond one morning clearly regards the spawn as the feline equivalent of caviar.

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Tuesday 15 April 2014

Approaching the blind corner on Hungerford common I saw movement through the bushes and realised that the cows have been turned out for the summer. There were a few young heifers crossing the lane as I rounded the corner and I paused to let the stragglers run over to catch the leaders. These were enthusiastically following a solitary walker. Whether this was the herdsman I couldn’t tell, but the heifers had clearly taken a fancy to him.

Then over the brow of the common came galloping a herd, nearly all black, clustered together and running hard as if they were being herded by cowboys. They didn’t hesitate at the lane, but poured over it like a thundercloud racing past in a high wind and went off in pursuit of their peers.

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Wednesday 16 April 2014

The starlings are back in my garden. A couple of them come in the mornings to prowl round the rapidly growing plants beside the pond, prodding the ground repeatedly.

And the sparrows are here too, a little group of them. One or two have a small white feather in their beak as they fly up from the ground to the herb baskets attached to the shed. From there they rise almost vertically to the house martin box that they’ve colonised for the last two summers. They appear to be nesting in it again.

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Thursday 17 April 2014

There was a small mound of twigs on the water near the far bank, sheltered from the park beyond by a semi-circle of young silver birches and a swathe of flowering white dead nettles. Just above the crest of the mound was a sliver of white, the head plaque of the coot sitting on her eggs. The smooth surface of the lake stretched away in either direction, with other birds congregating at both ends.

Different species, especially the larger ducks and geese, were allowed to pass, but fierce coot battles were held by the defending male against any other coot that wanted to encroach on his territory. So spluttering encounters sent water spraying repeatedly into the air as the incumbent male and a challenger lay back to use their long-clawed feet as weapons. It was only midday, so this defence must be costing the defending male dearly in energy.

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Friday 18 April 2014

The small holes in the surface of the riverbank fascinated Bryn, my young Border collie, who darted from one to another with the eagerness of a truffle hound. He could just get his nose into them, and thrust it in time after time, emerging from them to rush towards the river.

The Test itself then held his attention, its deep waters rippling with the strength of the current, its waterweeds streaming out below the surface. Fortunately Bryn was on the lead here, as he made strenuous attempts to leap straight into the water, especially when he saw a bleached plant stem drift lazily down past us.

I’ve no idea what made the holes, I had always assumed they were made by foxes or badgers scratching for beetles or worms. But I recognised the call that rang out, such a large sound for so small a bird. And there it was, a little grebe, floating in one spot on the water, riding the current. Although it seemed to be making no effort to stay where it was, it must have taken considerable strength to hold its place against the force of the water.

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Saturday 19 April 2014

It looked like a stump of wood that had suddenly appeared in the centre of the woodland ride that I know well. But suddenly it moved, and at speed too. The hare sprinted off into the neighbouring copse and jinked out of sight. Fortunately Bryn, my young Border collie, had been busy checking out a track on the far side of the ride and didn’t notice the excitement.

But within seconds he was staring ahead as if he realised he had missed something. I managed to keep him by my side, although I was taken aback to see two more hares spring up, almost in boxing mode, and follow the first.

It’s as if they had been crouched down having a three-member discussion, although I suspect it was a mating debate. I couldn’t help but think of the miners’ symbol of three hares, so familiar from Dartmoor.

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Sunday 20 April 2014

The fat tadpoles lay flat on one of the sunlit shelves of my back garden pond. Only a faint tail wiggle gave them away, otherwise they just looked like shadows from flakes of debris on the water’s surface.

Their shelf has been exposed by Bryn, my young Border collie, who likes to fish here. He fishes for the plant pots and has now retrieved them all, whatever their size, even when I have weighted them with bricks. He has developed a skilled flick which sends the pot contents slithering into deeper water, and then brings the pot out to toss triumphantly around the garden.

It has been a relief to see so many tadpoles in such an advanced stage of development when I replace the pots, lowering them carefully onto the shelf. So far Bryn doesn’t seem to have noticed the little wriggling creatures, although the pond and the waterfall have become one of his favourite playgrounds.

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Monday 21 April 2014

Robbie, my back garden robin, comes to visit me with his mate now. She shadows him so closely and looks so like him that at first it felt as though I was seeing double.

The blackbirds come as a pair too. Bertie still busy defending his territory and giving the alarm as well as feeding his brood. Bella concentrates almost exclusively on collecting food, but often flies up to survey the scene from the branches of the willow. I am sorry that they are no longer nesting in the back garden, it will be at least another two years before last year’s replanting has grown enough to provide cover for nests. But I hope that the parents will still bring their youngsters to the garden now that they have hatched. A lot of the shrubs that previous babies have sheltered in are flourishing and will still provide useful hiding places close to food and water.

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Tuesday 22 April 2014

Bluebells are fully out in the Hampshire woodland, creating the kind of scene generations of landscape artists have painted. Swathes of indigo blue lie under the pale green of the emerging beech leaves in the high canopy, held up by the pale grey trunks that stand in battalions throughout the wood.

Colour is reappearing in the woodland, where the blue is so much deeper in colour en masse than the pale bells seem to be on the single stems. And the green is so much brighter and clearer than it will be later in the year.

The soft yellow of the brimstone butterfly was conspicuous as it drifted along the woodland track. But the smaller orange tip looked as though its wings had been freshly dipped in bright paint as it flitted along in much more vigorous flight than its larger peer.

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Wednesday 23 April 2014

The network of narrow lanes below the downs threads between small fields and patches of woodland. The verges are bright with stitchwort and dandelions, growing in quite distinct separate patches.

In this fine weather the deer venture out from the woodland to graze in the fields. I caught sight today of first one pale brown shape against the green of a pasture, then two others. More had ventured out with greater caution, grazing close to the woodland edge, less visible from the lane. But eventually I counted eight fallow does, each with their head bent, busily eating the new shoots.

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Thursday 24 April 2014

Larks sang vigorous solos across their territories on the New Forest plain at Bramshaw Telegraph. But as we approached the woods the call of a cuckoo rang out, the first I’ve heard this year. Eight times during our walk I heard the call, but never do know how many birds that means have arrived – one moving around and calling eight times, or two or three birds, or eight distinct ones each calling in a separate area.

Within the woodlands the sound of soloists gave way to a vigorous choir of birds, their voices blending, then dividing. But all the time the air was filled with avian music, spreading through the wide spaces across the slope of the plateau and over the streams and muddy rides.

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Friday 25 April 2014

Hawthorn has burst into flower, foaming over the hedgerows that edge the downs. Over a particularly steep slope it creates a great pool of white, making the sheep that graze above it look distinctly less white than I expect them to be.

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Saturday 26 April 2014

Rainwater filled the shallow pools on the New Forest heathland. They are peat brown to look into, with the plants that grow beneath moving gently as Bryn, my young Border collie, drinks from them. He loves these surprise pools, sometimes there, sometimes not, and is completely oblivious to the water skippers who spring across them, their feet suckering on and off of the surface.

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Sunday 27 April 2014

The soft brown figure of the mallard duck female were almost hidden by the shade of the trees that overhung the pavement. It was her movement that betrayed her presence, as she strode determinedly up the path, followed by a straggling brood of tiny newly hatched ducklings.

Across the road she went, leading her youngsters with her, and along the far pavement out of sight. I knew of no water nearby, but she clearly did and was taking her babies there without delay.

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Monday 28 April 2014

A trio of seagulls perched on the tree trunk bridge watching the feeding below. When the Andean bears at Jersey’s Durrell Wildlife Park moved on elsewhere in their outdoor enclosure the birds moved down to search the grass. One picked up a small red tomato in its beak and moved away from its peers. Standing by the moat he dropped the tomato, whether purposefully or accidentally I couldn’t tell. But he stood watching the small red globe sink through the water out of sight.

When the bears moved inside I went to watch them. And in came a robin from the far side of the indoor dens, walking and hopping under the bears who were napping in their raised nests. He moved with complete confidence across the floor, pecking at the shredded paper that drifted down from the nests, completely unconcerned about the huge furry creatures nearby. After a few minutes he flew out outside through the main door, no doubt continuing his regular daily routine just as much as the sleeping bears were.

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Tuesday 29 April 2014

A moorhen skittered along the water, leaving a line of arrow-shaped footprints. Just behind them the water curved gently as the tail fin of a huge carp just broke the surface as the fish swam down the centre of the moat of Jersey’s Durrell Wildlife Park orang utan enclosure. The carp’s scales glittered in the sunlight as it turned in a slow arc, almost beaching itself in the shallows, before turning to retrace its route, its pace completely unhurried.

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Wednesday 30 April 2014

Wide lengths of fleece stretched in ranks across the field, their soft surface bulging with the growing leaves of the Jersey Royal potatoes that were flourishing underneath.

A plump pigeon stood on the edge of one of the lengths, looking puzzled, just as if he knew what was hidden there but couldn’t work out how to get at it.

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