Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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The Witness — Mary Tant's latest classic-crime novel in the Rossington series — was published at the end of March 2014. Here, she writes about her love of wildlife and wild places.

August 2014

Friday 1 August 2014

A slender ring of poppies circles the roundabout, an appropriate reminder of the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Nearby another roundabout supports a coronet of lavender, buzzing with bees and other insects.

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Saturday 2 August 2014

It’s hard to recognise spring’s sleek blackbirds in the scarecrows who come to my back garden to feast on worms. The gleaming black feathers are obscured by tattered wisps of grey, the necks and heads are bald and bristling with new growth, bare patches show on their bodies. The gleaming yellow of beak and eye rims is dulled now, but the fierce intensity of the glare remains. And the knowledge of where to find food.

Normally at this time of year they all disappear from the garden until their moulting is completed. But I suspect the long dry spell has made it difficult to get food, so my supplies of mealworms are more necessary.

Both Bertie, the back garden male, and Billie from the front garden, tolerate each other now. And so do the females, Bella and Binkie, who come in slightly better but still shabby states.

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Sunday 3 August 2014

August%20002Unlike his weary parents, one young blackbird sunbathed on the shed, plump and relaxed, with his adult feathers just emerging on his tail and wing. But he hasn’t survived this long without an inbreed alertness which keeps him looking around He warned off other potential sunbathers, even ones as small as sparrows, but hurried into cover when the starling brood arrived.

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Monday 4 August 2014

July14_cygnetOne large webbed foot rested casually on each mink-coloured back as the three cygnets effortlessly kept their place in the calmer water on the edge of the fast flowing river Test.

Long sinuous necks curved over their bodies as they busily preened, their bills exploring their juvenile plumage with great thoroughness.

July14_swansFrom time to time a webbed foot would jerk, scratching at the probing beak.

Just occasionally their movements seemed synchronised, either to match or to mirror those of one of their siblings.

Nearby their mother was busy with the same activity, keeping her distance, but close enough to protect the youngsters if necessary.


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Tuesday 5 August 2014

August%20001The hazel trees formed an arch over the woodland path, casting it into shade. The bright white heap of chalk chunks gleamed noticeably bright at the base of one of the hazels. It was fresh diggings from one of the three badger holes that were dug into the shallow bank here over the last ten years. They are normally used over short spells when the young adult males leave the main sett on the arrival of the new season’s babies. And this year only this one has been freshly occupied.

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Wednesday 6 August 2014

A serpentine streak of yellow flowers wound through the valley in the bed of the winterbourne. Further downstream there were occasional pools of water, trapped by the thick growth of wild watercress.

On the edge of the woodland that grew along the valley crest a group of twenty or so house martins gathered. For a while they swooped low over the wheat or skimmed under the trees, before darting off down towards the village.

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Thursday 7 August 2014

There against the silver grey trunks was a momentary image of a leaping golden deer. It was just as if the heraldic image on a coat of arms had come to life. In reality it was a roe stag dashing out of the shadows under the beeches to race behind the nearby hedgerow.

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Friday 8 August 2014

August%20003It never seems as if rose pink should be an autumn colour, but there it is, one of the first tints to appear.

August%20004It touches the field maple leaves, where it deepens gradually to crimson.

And it spreads over the tight green berries of the guelder rose, which will slowly turn to scarlet.

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Saturday 9 August 2014

In my back garden Bella, the female blackbird, now appears in a state of wild disarray, soft grey feathers sticking out awkwardly all over her body. She comes more frequently than either of the males, who are acquiring their new plumage and looking less worn.

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Sunday 10 August 2014

August%20007Small white flowers star the thick heaps of greenery that drape the trees and sprawl over fallen trunks. This is clematis vitalba, Old Man’s Beard, and the scent of its flowers hangs over this wide ride between the woodland and the wheat field. There are distinct tracks through the undergrowth, moving directly between the crop with the winterbourne below and the cap of woodland on the crest of the valley. These are made mainly by badgers, who’ve climbed over or wriggled under the wire fencing, and probably by the occasional fox.

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Monday 11 August 2014August%20006

The double strand of phone wires was an ideal perch. Each was hosting a row of resting swallows, every bird a careful distance from its neighbour. They preened, or just sat still, distinctive black and white shapes against the sky.


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Tuesday 12 August 2014

Sparrows clustered so thickly on the bird feeder that they almost hid it. There was one on each of the four perches, and two standing on the base.

Robbie, my robin, is more discreet, sitting in the branches of the chaenomeles beside the back door. When I throw out mealworms he hops down to feed close to the shelter of the bush.

Bertie, the back garden blackbird, is more domineering, standing on the roof of the shed near the back door and fixing me with an imperative stare.

Both Bertie and Robbie will come to find me if I’m working outside or gardening and expect largesse as their due. The sparrows then come in their wake.

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Wednesday 13 August 2014

Early this morning there was the sound of autumn’s harbingers, as a stream of geese flew over the house, calling constantly to each other.

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Thursday 14 August 2014

I was sitting in the garden room, with the back door open as I talked on the phone. Glancing idly down I saw I had an unexpected auditor. Just in front of the pots that edge the shed sat the tiny mouse I’d seen recently in the courtyard garden.

The sunlight lit his curved pink ears, making them look like fragile shells. His little snout was quite long, and fringed with delicate white whiskers. He was totally grey with shiny black currant-sized eyes. And he was completely unfazed by my presence or the sound of my voice as he stretched out to pluck titbits from between the bricks of the terrace. But after a minute he darted back into cover, frightened by some movement overhead.

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Friday 15 August 2014

I was high up, walking on the ridgeway over the downs, with the clouds massing in white mountains in the blue sky and the golden wheat fields stretching out on either side me. Ahead lay the grassy mounds of a hill fort, its slopes patterned with wild flowers, white, blue and purple. Above it a kestrel fluttered, a dark speck in the sky, and the only movement in the stillness. The bird kept its position above the fort for some moments until suddenly it swooped down and was gone from sight.

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Saturday 16 August 2014

The pub terrace looks out over the canal and Bryn, my young Border collie, was able to push his head through the railings to watch the splashing of a rowdy group of young mallards on the far side.

A female drifted past just under his nose, serenely ignoring the noisy youngsters and ignorant of the fascinated dog just above her. Close to her tail feathers was a tiny fluffy replica, like a tug behind a steamer.

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Sunday 17 August 2014

The tits have returned to my back garden after an absence all summer. Now there’s the faded yellows and blues of the blue tit, feeding shyly from the sheltered side of the seed holder. And there’s the distinctive coal tit, with his black and white schoolboy cap, who comes boldly to take one seed at a time and fly away to eat it.

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Monday 18 August 2014

purple_majoramI didn’t know where to look first, the downland was so species-rich with flowers and shrubs. sloe_berriesThickets of dogwood and buckthorn were fringed with carpets of wild purple marjoram. Hawthorn berries were turning a rich red, while sloe berries glinted black on their thorny branches.

Harebells still fluttered their heads in a few places, agrimony plants left conical seed heads tangled in the dog’s tail, knapweed stood in great stands rattling silver trays now barren of the seeds they had held. An occasional purple patch of bugle stood out, and a few pale blue scabious flowers still showed.

The butterflies were everywhere, from the meadow browns bumbchalkhill_blueling low down to the sulphur yellow brimstones floating past at eye level. Chalkhill blues fluttered round the flowers, settling down particularly on the scabious to open their bleached wings, so much paler still than when they’re moving. Large and green-veined whites were slow flying, but the small skippers moved so fast that only the flash of their tiny golden wings gave them away.

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Tuesday 19 August 2014

The cattle were huddled in a tight group beside the river in the water meadow. It was as if they were staring disbelievingly at the machine that was riding down the centre of the river, like an eccentric scientist’s lawnmower that had run amok.

It was actually a weedcutter, surging through the water and trimming the abundant weed that flowed below.

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Wednesday 20 August 2014

September%20008The canal banks have been rich with wildflowers this year. Among others there’ve been stands of greater willowherb, water figwort, hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife, bistort and meadowsweet.

A week or so ago I passed seed harvesters with bright red plastic baskets to hold their gains. I hadn’t realised before that the abundance of wildflowers that I so much enjoy has been both encouraged, and protected from, the invasive species like orange balsam that occasionally peek out from the undergrowth.

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Thursday 21 August 2014

Wild carrot seems to have extended its range this year. I see the beautiful filigree purse-like seed heads along road verges, across roundabouts, as well as along the ridges of the hillfort where I first recognised them. When I pass a late umbellifer here I occasionally still find it’s a wild carrot in flower, instantly identifiable by the single garnet red floret in its centre.


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Friday 22 August 2014

It was a steep climb up the hill, towards the crown of beeches that sat askew on the summit. Below ran the broad moving band of water that was the Itchen navigation, purple_knapweedwith just a glimpse through more distant trees of the river itself.

And there, past swathes of St John’s wort and purple knapweed, almost invisible in the seeding grass is what I’ve come to see. The curving narrow labyrinthine lines of the Winchester mizmaze cut into the turf, weaving along and around within a roughly square overall shape until the centre is reached.

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Saturday 23 August 2014

The common is purple with flowering heather. At least, it is in the stretches that scrub and silver birches haven’t colonised. This whole area was cleared some years ago, partly to restore its earlier habitat, partly to improve conditions for ground-nesting birds such as nightjars. The nightjars at least do still come here for the summer, and in more recently cleared patches there were orchids in the spring. But the land hasn’t been grazed since the clearance, and so the scrub has grown up again, establishing the first stage of returning woodland.

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Sunday 24 August 2014

August%20017Tall straw bale towers marched across the wheat field like modern monoliths with a hidden meaning. In the neighbouring field low rows of hay were being turned by one tractor and made into circular bales by another, both working steadily up and down the lines of pale dried grass.

August%20018However modern the equipment, the post-harvest actions of collecting the straw and gathering the hay are ancient, still preparing us for the winter and guarding against famine by providing for our livestock.

Although I suspect a lot of the supplies here keep horses overwinter, as it's very much racing country here just below the downs where strings of race horses are frequently exercised.


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Monday 25 August 2014

August%20021Along the edge of the woodland more autumn berries are identifying the trees they grow upon – the clusters of buckthorn berries as green as the leaves that shelter them are gradually turning black. And so are some of the berries of the wayfaring tree, black nuggets among the scarlet.

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Tuesday 26 August 2014

I picked my first lot of this season’s blackberries last week. Fortunately, for the developing crop has been turned into mush by yesterday’s heavy rain.

August%20016I wasn’t the first to realise the fruit had ripened early. There was a speckled wood butterfly on one berry, who sat there sipping sustenance while I worked my way around her. A variety of insects were gorging on the riper fruits, and spiders had decided to benefit from their presence, draping their webs across the thorny bramble branches. And their stores were growing, judging from the little bodies trapped in the sticky silk strands.

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Wednesday 27 August 2014

August%20015The tufty seedheads of clematis vitalba drape the hedgerows and hang in swags from the trees. It’s easy to see how they got their common name, old man’s beard, and they are an attractive sight.

Unlike the curtains of drying goosegrass, Old Man's Beardwhich are neither so attractive nor so noticeable. At least not until we come into contact with them. Then I find the little burs entangled in the dog’s hair and tail. And I find the nasty little things stuck in my socks, edging into my boots.

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Thursday 28 August 2014

September%20010The overhanging trees made this canal lock a gloomy spot. Even the water there was mud coloured and dull.

A darker shape broke away from the gloom cast by the beeches, hazels, European ashes, sycamores. It flew directly towards us on the towpath, looking at first like an over-sized duck. It was only when it came out into the sunlight that I saw it was a cormorant, flying past low enough for me to see the yellow beak and streamlined dark body.

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Friday 29 August 2014

August%20019The straw bales were being pronged by one tractor and loaded onto a trailer drawn by another one in a wheat field beside the canal. The machines moved in a pattern, almost a dance, retreat, turn, swing, prong, retreat, turn, advance, load. It was hypnotic to watch, but undoubtedly hard work to do.

Further along there were sepia-coloured cows grazing in the long lush grass of the water meadows. They are only glimpsed as pale patches of colour through the trees, with an occasional swish of a tail to add movement.

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Saturday 30 August 2014

Clouds of rooks and crows swirl over the harvest fields, occasionally landing for a brief spell to peck at exposed insects or a trail of grain.

In the nearby lanes French partridges run in clockwork-fashion ahead of the car, pumping their red legs faster and faster until suddenly veering off into the verge.

And just once, crouched in fright, pretending to be a clod of earth in the centre of the lane, there was a quail. I had to stop the car and wait until it suddenly scurried into the shrubbery.

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Sunday 31 August 2014

The pigs of Salisbury Plain are one of the landmarks of my journeys to the West Country. Big pink pigs, possibly Welsh, with a few gingery Tamworths lying comfortably on the straw outside their corrugated iron shacks that look like miniature World War II plane hangars. Big pink pigs strolling over the pale brown earth of their world. In a way it looks like a toned-down version of an African plain with rhinos. And where the rhinos would each have along their back a row of white egrets industriously pecking away at parasites, the big pink pigs have a row of crows doing the same thing.

The next major landmark is the first sighting of red soil in a ploughed field, and soon after comes the line of Dartmoor on the distant horizon with the eastern tors looming over its ramparts.

Today the distant view was brightly lit with sunshine, which continued as we reached the high moor. Bryn, my young Border collie, was sitting up in the back, looking out at the view, assessing the cows and ponies and sheep he could see.

September%20001And I was drinking in the acres of gorse and heather, coloured regally in bright gold and rich purple. The colour was tightly packed together in patterns that would make an embroiderer envious.

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