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.

July 2014

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Tiny fragments of colour darted along the canal’s edge. They were blue damselflies, fluttering their dark wings above their iridescent bodies. And once I spotted a paler tawny coloured one among its brighter kin.

Nearby a grey wagtail bobbed up and down on the edge of the salmon run, its markings subtler than those of the more common pied wagtail. Its name always amazes me as its yellow belly is so conspicuous, belying the greyness its description suggests.

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Wednesday 2 July 2014

There were at least a hundred of them, small trout, about six inches long, floating just below the surface of the canal, enjoying the sun’s heat. The shapes were generally dark, but occasionally became almost transparent as one or other of them turned or drifted lazily in the bright sunlight.

Not far above, just above the treetops, a red kite circled slowly, apparently finding a thermal to ride, although there wasn’t the slightest trace of a breeze below. It was fortunate that it wasn’t a heron, who would presumably have spotted the kind of feast he dreamed of.

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Thursday 3 July 2014

The starling babies are out and about. I put down mealworms this morning when Bertie, my back garden blackbird, appeared. Within seconds the air was full of whirling wings as two families of starlings appeared. The pale coffee colour of the adolescents was all that distinguished them from their parents.

They only settled for a few seconds before some alarm scattered them in another great flurry of movement. Only one adult returned to feed, and he’s here quite often, unflustered by my appearance. I like to think he’s Stan, the starling who first came as a solitary youngster last year.

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Friday 4 July 2014

A loud skirling call came from the reeds. The coot anchored in the river nearby was quite undisturbed, even when the little grebe shot out of cover like a cork from a bottle. The coot continued to pull up a long skein of weeds as the little grebe submerged and bobbed up again before setting off purposefully down the river.

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Saturday 5 July 2014

The swan seemed to be on guard at its post, holding its place against the river’s current. Suddenly a long white shape appeared in the reeds as another swan’s head shot up like a periscope to survey the scene. For a moment I wondered if she could be nesting again, but as she slid into the water to join her mate I realised she had probably been indulging in a nap out of sight of the open meadow on my side of the river.

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Sunday 6 July 2014

July14%20001The little channel off the main river was alive with sprats, tiny silver fish no longer than my little finger. They seemed to hang motionless in the sunlit water until Bryn, my young Border collie, bent over for a drink.

Instantly the sprats moved, curving outwards in a slender co-ordinated line to move swiftly further away.


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Monday 7 July 2014

A cluster of pale brown juvenile ducklings kept closely together in the river inlet. Individuals occasionally moved out a little, dipping their heads into the water or pulling at an overhanging piece of grass.

They looked quite nondescript, almost invisible against their backdrop, and were keeping well under cover. There were eight of them, obviously a family that have grown up together. I don’t think I’ve seen so many ducklings in one family survive to this stage before.

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Tuesday 8 July 2014

The fallow field that looks so scrubby at other times of the year is now a sea of white ox-eye daisies. A rusty streak across the middle shows where sorrel has created a narrow channel, while in the distance a solitary deer stands prick-eared among the flowers, staring towards us as we pass.

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Wednesday 9 July 2014

A brilliant flash of turquoise rose into the air from the bleached branches of a fallen willow that protruded from the canal. Bryn, my young Border collie, had dipped into the shallows some distance away, startling the kingfisher into flight from his perch above the water.

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Thursday 10 July 2014

July14%20008I felt as though I was taking a path through a land sea, with breakers of creamy hogweed curving away on either side from the ridgeway path. This stretched away into the distance and beyond the foaming borders the closely packed ears of wheat were full and ripening.


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Friday 11 July 2014

August%20005It’s the purple season again in the wild flower world. Knapweed, thistle, scabious, bugle, they’re all there among the tall feathery grasses. And above their heads the beeches are laden with prickly pale brown nut husks. Like the nearby wheat, these are ripening in the heat.

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Saturday 12 July 2014

They were a darker shadow under the shade of the hollies at the centre of the New Forest copse.


Only the occasional whisk of a tail betrayed them, as one or other pony tried to deter the insects that stung and irritated their flanks.



July14%20006 There were at least fifty of the ponies sheltering here from the intense heat of mid-morning.


The mares stood quite still, their heads hanging, but the foals moved languidly near their mothers, trying a desultory nibble of holly bark or searching for a blade of grass on the packed earth.


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Sunday 13 July 2014

In the cool of the evening the herd of ponies emerges from the New Forest copse where they shelter during the main heat of the day. They drift towards the brook, splashing down into the water in twos and threes, emerging some time later in a great noisy surge and spray.

Gradually they spread out, some grazing on the cropped grass that borders the brook, others drifting onto the scrubby slope beyond. But generally they stay close together, not drifting away in the small groups that I usually see.

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Monday 14 July 2014

Only the heron moved in the still bright sunshine of late afternoon. A large grey shape, he flew low over the expanse of glittering yellow long-stemmed buttercups that covered the wide bank of the New Forest brook.

He landed not far ahead of us on the dried course of a small stream, but there was nothing there to interest him. The ground in the dip was parched into pale muddy clumps around the pockmarks made by the ponies who’d passed through here when it was a muddy quagmire.

Off he flew, following the brook, but not landing again. He chose instead to veer away sharply southward over the scrubby slope and out of sight between the trees.

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Tuesday 15 July 2014

The New Forest ponies were out earlier today while the sun was still high. The breeze cools things down a little, but it was still too much for the foals. They all lay flat on the hot ground, slight dark mounds on the green grass, while their mothers grazed nearby.

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Wednesday 16 July 2014

The evening light was still clear enough to see the fox come strolling down the New Forest lane past the cottage. The trees cast deep shadows over the far edge of the lane, but the fox wasn’t concerned about staying out of sight. He kept confidently to the centre, passing by our window and out of sight over the bridge above the brook.

If the garden growth hadn’t been so luxuriant I would probably have seen him slip down the much used slide into the quiet garden opposite. A saunter along the brook and he’d soon be out on the open lawn. Only a short time earlier I’d been keeping my dog away from the rabbits that popped out from under the gorse bushes there.

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Thursday 17 July 2014

A tiny movement caught my eye in the garden of the New Forest cottage. It was a tiny dark field mouse motoring out of cover in the shrubbery to hide in the shelter of the desiccated remains of an old tree.

Not far away a wild yammering announced the dipping flight of a greater spotted woodpecker who had undoubtedly contributed to the holes that marked the old tree. He could have flown unnoticed into the sycamore near where I sat, if only he hadn’t made so much noise.

The huge pike is back in the brook at the bottom of the garden, lurking in deep water, waiting for prey. I haven’t seen him, but have twice disturbed him, so that he swirls into even deeper water with an enormous splash.

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Friday 18 July 2014

July14%20007The fescue grasses in the New Forest paddock turn the colour of rubies in the evening light, a rich deep red. As they flicker in the breeze I often think I see more purposeful movement among them, or the outline of a figure. But still I was surprised when a fallow deer suddenly popped her head up to stare at me. I was close enough to see her nose twitching, her ears jerking to listen.

But she wasn’t bothered by me, or by Bryn, my young Border collie. After a long period of contemplation she began to graze again, and I watched her ghostly shape through the grasses until it faded away as she drifted back towards the forest.

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Saturday 19 July 2014

The bird rose heavily from the fallen tree beside the New Forest ride. He flew heavily at head height into the nearby copse, weaving skilfully through the oak and holly trunks.

Bryn, my young Border collie, watched in fascinated stillness the first time we saw the wood buzzard. But the second time he was looking for the bird, and found him too in exactly the same spot, triggering him into the same action. Now even when the bird isn’t on his perch, Bryn looks intently into the copse, trying to see where he’s hiding, not recognising the buzzard’s cry as he circles high above the trees.

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Sunday 20 July 2014

The fox came strolling along the track through the plantation, a dark russet figure who was quite at home here.

I quietly called Bryn, my Border collie, back to me and held his collar as we both watched. But still the fox knew at once that we were there. He stopped to stare, assessing us, and decided to branch off.

Without haste he strolled to the far side of the track, then changed his mind and came back to the near side, slipping behind a fallen tree trunk and out of our sight. And all without a sound, no rustle of bracken, no crack of a twig, no crunch of leaf mould.

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Monday 21 July 2014

Golden dragonflies patrol the course of the brookJuly14%20010, occasionally darting off on a quick reconnaissance flight over the surrounding brambles.

In the heat a constant backdrop to their movement is the endless whirr of grasshoppers busily stridulating, rubbing one back leg against a forewing. It’s a gentle sound, the sound of summer, as I walk along a New Forest ride, where the carmined new wild apples mingle with the last of the pale dog roses on the edge of the trees.

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Tuesday 22 July 2014

The hazel tree cast still shadows of its leaves and branches over the worn red bricks of the bridge crossing the brook. Light from the water below reflected up over the shadows in rippling waves, like a stream flowing uphill. And above it all danced a pair of blue damselflies, up and down, round and round.

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Wednesday 23 July 2014

It looked like a sudden transplantation, a new tree in the paddock beside the New Forest lane, and one whose branches were unusually bare in the summer. As I paused under the shelter of the hazels to look, the branches moved and I realised that they were the antlers of one of a group of fallow stags, peacefully grazing in the sunshine.

When I finally moved on with my dog their heads swung round to watch me, their antlers seeming to mingle, their faces close together, all with the same intent stare. The bright light shone on their chestnut backs, each with vivid white spots, and gilded their antlers. It was a lovely sight.

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Thursday 24 July 2014

The sweet scent of lime has been a keynote for me this summer. July14%20009The trees seem to be laden with tiny yellow flowers that fill the air with the smell of honey so strongly that I almost feel I can taste it.

There is an avenue of limes on Winchester cathedral green, so when I’m in the city I walk down under the cool shade of their green leaves, breathing in the scent. Or I sit on a bench nearby, letting it drift and settle around me.

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Friday 25 July 2014

A tiny frog sprang out of from under the frothing green flowers of lady’s mantle as I refilled one of the water bowls in my back garden. I was delighted, for at last my tadpoles must have made their final transformation. I won’t be able to see into the pond until I clear the duck weed that lies over it like a thick skin.

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Saturday 26 July 2014

My back-garden blackbirds seem to be feeding two broods. Bertie was digging tiny fragments of juicy earthworms out of the damp soil after heavy rain. He paused to look at me, but didn’t demand his due of mealworms. Somewhere he has young fledglings who will enjoy some fresh meat during this spell of hot weather when the ground has been so hard.

During a sunny spell, Bella perched on the courtyard wall to stuff a raspberry into the beak of a large youngster who gulped it down instantly. He’s already larger than his mother, but still flies after her when she leaves, pleading imperiously for seconds.

Bella is thin, but her plumage is immaculate. Bertie, though, is looking ragged, some feathers are sticking out at odd angles, others have turned white. He’s certainly lost the breeding gloss he had earlier in the year, but this isn’t surprising as he must be raising his third, if not fourth brood of this season. Now that they aren’t nesting in my garden it’s harder to keep track. It’ll be another two years before the new plantings are thick enough to be useful to them.

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Sunday 27 July 2014

July14_hazelnutsPale green hazelnuts peer shyly out from under their curly caps. Squirrels are already taking the nuts, leaving their halved shelves lying on the ground as evidence of a recent feast.

Prickly burdock burs stick to my trousers and the dog’s coat. But marbled white butterflies still feed with impunity on the remaining purple flowers among the burs.

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Monday 28 July 2014

Pond skaters had gathered in a crowd in one of the shallows at the edge of the canal. They were never still, one or two were always hopping into a different place, but among the twenty or more in the small space there was never a collision.

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Tuesday 29 July 2014

July14_shrewCream meadowsweet clusters mingle with frothy pink heads of hemp valerian, competing successfully with stands of greater willow herb for space along the canal edge.

Near all this lush growth, a still small figure lies beside the gravelled towpath. A tiny perfect shrew, accidentally dropped by a predator to lie here in bleak motionless beauty.

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Wednesday 30 July 2014July14rose_gall


The prickly brown cluster was bright red at the centre. It was a rose gall, tucked away among ripening blackberries.


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Thursday 31 July 2014

First two seagulls trailed across the sky, flying west to east towards the flooded gravel pits some twenty miles away. Then came two more, followed by a straggler. Soon the gulls were coming in larger numbers, always in a loose v formation.

Three or four of these groups passed by, but there was no sign of the swifts who are normally darting and screaming high above at this time of the evening.

When the bats came out, at the time the swifts usually hand the lower sky over to them, I knew the birds had gone for the winter. Their timing is always regular and they’ve always left here by the beginning of August. Last night I saw perhaps the last two, flitting briefly overhead and passing on.

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