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. Here, she writes about her love of wildlife and wild places.

May 2014

Thursday 1 May 2014

A great tit was working over cracks in the oak tree bark. He was quite unconcerned about the other occupants of the tree, whose long black-ringed tails hung like bell ropes through the branches. Two appropriately named ring-tailed lemurs perched briefly among the opening bronze-green leaves at the outermost tips of the oak, surveying the lake below and its far bank in Jersey’s Durrell Wildlife Park.

But the great tit flew off into the shelter of nearby bushes when the lemurs ran back through the tree, leaping agilely from branch to branch, their long tails floating behind them.

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Friday 2 May 2014

A small piece of carrot floated in the gently flowing water of the moat around Durrell’s bear enclosure. Suddenly it seemed to move with a life of its own, in short jerks towards the bank. It was only as I looked more closely I saw that a tiny fish was manoeuvring the carrot piece, much larger that itself. As it neared the overhanging grass it was met by a shoal of other tiny fish, all come to join the feast.

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Saturday 3 May 2014

There was just a flash of movement, an impression of deep colour, and for a moment I thought one of Durrell’s tamarins was out exploring the trees. Then the creature moving through the oak branches nearby paused, and I saw it was a red squirrel, its bushy tail luminous in a beam of sunlight as the creature sat on its haunches to look around.

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Sunday 4 May 2014

The birds arrowed through the evening sky to land on the exposed sand and pebbles of one of Jersey’s small fishing harbours. It was only as they landed that I realised they weren’t the seagulls I anticipated, but a family of mallard ducks. Then I remembered how often I saw them floating on the sea here when the tide was in, so they have clearly adapted to a saltwater existence.

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Monday 5 May 2014

The first of this year’s swifts circled high above my back garden this evening. There were a dozen of them there as I sat in the dusk. They had suddenly gone out of sight, as always just at the point that the bats appeared, diving much lower over my head after the midges that seem to have appeared early this spring.

And a sudden rustling in a nearby flowerbed announced the appearance of another regular garden visitor. As I watched the carpet of violet leaves shivered with the hedgehog’s passage. A dark snout appeared as she snuffled among the plants, gradually emerging between two blue spires of bugle as if she was coming through a gateway onto the brick path.

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Tuesday 6 May 2014

A pale wash of blue coloured patches of the oak and beech plantations in the New Forest. The bluebells are shorter and more widely spaced than in other Hampshire woodlands that I know, but their distinctive spring scent still fills the air as I sit on a log. Bryn, my young Border collie, is ranging around, excited by an extended walk here, sniffing the ground for scents and just enjoying the space and the wildness.

Above us the sky is lightly screened by the fresh green leaf canopy, beams of sunlight gleam off the trunks that march away all around us. And birdsong resonates, piercing, throbbing, shrilling, with a distant background of a cuckoo calling.

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Wednesday 7 May 2014

Bluebells grow thickly along the buried mounds of the New Forest hunting lodge, as if marking them out with a thick coloured pen. Here and there the dried leaves have been scuffed by animals passing through undisturbed, deer, badger, fox and ponies. And in places the ground is scratched up, showing where some of them have foraged for food, beetles and worms, perhaps roots.

A brown bird flew silently up from the ground, followed immediately by another. Without a sound they skimmed low over the ground, their wings curved like those of a swift, a white flash highlighting their general drabness. They were only visible for a few seconds before they vanished into a stand of silver birches. A pair of nightjars.

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Thursday 8 May 2014

The sudden movement by my foot startled me as I walked down by the back garden. I had almost trodden on a baby robin, who flitted, half flying, half scuttling, across the lawn to shelter against the hazel panel. His red chest marking was slightly blurred, his brown back too, by the baby fluff that still underlay his emerging feathers. But his little wings were still powerful enough to carry him on short flights.

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Friday 9 May 2014

A hare lolloped up the ridges of the meadow, unaware that I could see him from the road to the West Country. The small fields on either side of him were dotted with white sheep and lambs. Further on black sheep appeared, distinctive shapes against the overall whiteness of the flock.

Almost immediately the pied theme was carried on by the herd of goats that stood pensively among trees or lay to nibble the grass of a long meadow. Broken lines of spindly hawthorn, beech and oak ran up the slope, marking long gone boundaries of small fields.

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Saturday 10 May 2014

Bluebells grow everywhere here under the oak trees in this far Cornish peninsula. Blue and green predominate as I drive into the hidden valley on the Lizard, giving way to broad splashes of white as spreads of wild garlic appear. I have known this hidden ancient estate for many years, often staying in a favourite house in a narrow secluded valley. Now I have come to stay in a different cottage, and introduce a new Border collie to a place that Tirn, my old collie, loved dearly.

I don’t know if Bryn appreciated the flowers and their scents when we arrived last night. But he was definitely excited by the fat rabbits that disappeared from the lawns around the cottage, and was soon eagerly following trails through the small wooded corner of the garden. Each scuff was examined, each hole checked out. I’m sure he was as aware as I was that there were foxes and badgers about.

And this morning the thrill of this new country had him raring to go out, with short sharp barks at the crack of dawn acting as effectively as any alarm clock could. He’s following a precedent set by Tirn, his predecessor, who didn’t have to bark from downstairs, he just sat beside the bed with his eager eyes fixed on my face until I opened one of my own blearily to see him tense with eagerness to go out.

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Sunday 11 May 2014

There were two unexpected occupants of the rockery when Bryn went past beside the Cornish wall in the Lizard cottage garden last night. He started back when he saw the first toad, squatting motionless on the rocks. Creeping forward to look at it again, he was fascinated to find a second one nearby, keeping just as still. He had to be persuaded to stop sniffing delicately at them and to move on, although I was tempted to see how he would react if one of the toads moved.

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Monday 12 May 2014

We’d struggled along a muddy stretch of the wide expanse of heathland in the centre of The Lizard. Bryn, my young Border collie, floundered stoically through wet and grimy troughs, while I stepped carefully from one clump of grass to another.

At last clear ground lay ahead of us, there was just a hummock of land to scramble over, to avoid the last bog. And just as I got to dry ground I froze, my foot in the air, shouting at Bryn to wait. For an instant I thought it was an adder that lay so still there.

But it was a slender slow worm, stretched out across the stone to absorb the sun in this spot that was sheltered from the high wind. The bright light glittered off its pale brown scales, and it lay quite unconcerned about us.

At last I had to stamp my foot nearby, as I didn’t want Bryn to spot it and become interested. The slow worm jerked into sudden awareness, but still didn’t move. It was only when I stamped again that it slid smoothly and silently out of sight under the heather roots.

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Tuesday 13 May 2014

The sun was warm, shining brightly on the sea, creating patterns on the moving waves. The wind was high so that I had to tie my hat strings firmly under my chin as I took Bryn, my young Border collie, on his first walk along part of The Lizard coast path. Gulls swirled lightly above the water, fascinating him by disappearing out of sight below the cliff.

A group of tall rocks stuck up like jagged teeth beyond the small harbour below us. Their granite shone a wet black in the brightness, and the nearest rock had a streaky white top, signature mark of the gulls that perched and nested on it.

Further along, the much larger Mullion Island showed a similar, but much larger stain, like the mane on the neck of a crouching lion. But here it was guillemots that were noticeable perched on the summit, black spots above the guano.

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Wednesday 14 May 2014

The newly turned soil was deep red, but the tractor that rested in one corner of the field was a much brighter red. The driver was having a snack, and so were the gulls that streamed out, brightly white, on the ground behind the tractor.

Some time later, lunching above Porthmeor bay, a bright red boat motored towards the land, seeming to struggle through the crowd of gulls that netted it.

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Thursday 15 May 2014

The mud flats glittered along the topmost branch of the Helford river for the tide was out. The mottled brown plumage of a curlew almost completely disguised the bird on the ground; it was only distinguished from a piece of wood by its stalking movements and the sudden jerks when it prodded the mud.

Further down the river, near a stone quay, a pale heron stood like a ghost along one of the channels. The rivulets that flowed sluggishly here at low tide were rising now as the sea began to come slowly back in.

A pair of turnstones flew upriver, keeping close together, brightly black and white in the sunlight, heralds of the returning water.

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Friday 16 May 2014

Swallows were swooping low over the wind-blown cliffs earlier in the week. And there they were again when I went down to the sea with Bryn, speeding just above the surface of the beach, skimming over the ridged wave patterns on the sand, almost touching the incoming ripples of water as the tide came in again.

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Saturday 17 May 2014

During this beautifully sunny week the local farmer has been busy. Almost every day I’ve sat over tea in the Lizard cottage garden to the hum of machinery.

First the field between the cottage and the estate woodland was harrowed, a faint miasma of red dust haloing the tractor. Then it was back, drilling in seed, to the satisfaction of the rooks that settled over the field behind it.

Then in the last few days the silage has been cut, leaving sweet-scented rows of grass to dry in the warm sunshine. Most of that cut two days ago has already been raked and gathered in. It should make scrumptious fodder for the cattle during the lean winter months.

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Sunday 18 May 2014

The slender thrush worked its way carefully through the ivy-covered wall, quite oblivious to me as I sat nearby watching. It was a song thrush, its chest blotches like splashes of chocolate down a pristine white shirt.

The robin who suddenly appeared on the back of the chair came specially to see me. He sat there, also very slender, his head cocked to one side, his bright eyes gleaming speculatively. So I gathered a few cake crumbs from my plate and scattered them on the ground. But he wasn’t fast enough. Bryn, my young Border collie, supposedly asleep under the table, got to them first.

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Tuesday 20 May 2014

The wide sky was pale blue, the clouds ash grey, and the horizon glowed with bands of yellow and gold, the last traces of the sinking sun. There wasn’t a breath of wind as I walked with Bryn, my young Border collie, over the newly shorn Cornish meadows, which gleamed pale and luminous in the dying light.

An owl hooted, loud and clearly, breaking the quietness. A dark shape slipped quickly up the meadow ahead of us, just distinguishable as a fox, perhaps moving into cover at our approach, perhaps heading more purposefully towards the farmyard nearby.

Later in the night, when the field beyond the Cornish cottage lay silver under the moonlight, the owl was still hooting, and the rabbits were out in the garden, strange shadowy lumps in the semi-darkness. One of the toads had gone exploring, leaving the security of the rockery, and crouched under the table as Bryn inspected it. Closer to the house the field mouse had come out from the shelter of the water barrel to drink from the puddle of water nearby.

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Wednesday 21 May 2014

I learned something today. Quite a lot in fact. And all because I had taken a boat down the Helford river, which I know well from walking on the south bank.

For the Helford isn’t a river, it’s a sea estuary and completely tidal. Which is why oysters are still cultivated here, as they have been for centuries, in beds near the junction with the sea, where they are washed repeatedly by the incoming and outgoing tides. Which is why the solitary sun-browned fisherman in his small boat held aloft the shining silver sea bream he had just hooked on his line.

In many places the woods line the water’s edge like architects’ models. Their lowest branches just skim above the white scoring left on the granite banks by the high tides.

All was silent, except for the purr of the boat’s engine and the gentle wash of water cleaved by its prow. I had come for the view, and the peace, and just the joy of being on the river in sunshine. I hadn’t expected information too.

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Thursday 22 May 2014

Colour runs riot under the trees that edge the creek. Pink campion, white stitchwort, bluebells, all mingling in expansive growth in the luxuriant grass. The air positively hums with the sound of insects, and occasionally the ringing call of a bird and a quick flight of brown wings. The flowers and sounds provide a rich contrast to the silent grey–brown mud flats that stretch along the narrowing creek, half hidden by the screen of trees. One brightly white little egret flew in along its route. A few minutes later two of the birds flew out, heading for the main river. And that was the only movement Frenchman’s Creek saw while I walked alongside it. Other, of course, than Bryn, my young Border collie, who was eagerly following the path over roots and round tree trunks, looking down longingly at the mud below.

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Friday 23 May 2014

The buzzard perched for some time on the telephone pole in the field beyond the Cornish cottage. The field was empty of the birds that have regularly flown in to enjoy the farmer’s largesse since he drilled the newly sown maize a couple of days ago. Eventually the buzzard flew away for a better site for he had youngsters to feed in a nest in the woods.

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Saturday 24 May 2014

It’s as if the young robin comes out into the Cornish cottage drive as soon as he hears the car. He stands in the middle of the grass grown drive, a thin little figure with only a vestige of red at the top of his breast. He seems confused, not sure where to go or what to do, but at last he hops onto the verge and the car trickles carefully past him.

He’s been doing this for three days now, and it seems to have become a habit. I hope it won’t be one that finishes him off when we’ve left the cottage.

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Sunday 25 May 2014

Tiny green flowers almost cover the lane as we drive away from Cornwall, as if the sycamores have flung them down to mark our departure, like confetti over the bride as she leaves church. The stone-walled hedges are still bright with flowers, waving streamers of pink, blue and white against the green of grass and the grey of granite.

As we drive further inland, the colour changes until we are passing between banks of frothing creamy Queen Anne’s lace. The fields are golden with long-stemmed buttercups in the tall grass, which almost hides the white bodies of the tiny new lambs lying next to their mothers. There seems to have been an explosion in the number of lambs since I last came this way two weeks ago.

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Monday 26 May 2014

I walked through a luminous green shade under the beeches of the Hampshire woodland. They had come fully into leaf while I was in Cornwall, and now screened the woodland floor, where the bluebells had given up their colour and scent to dangle tiny bulbous seed heads instead. Here and there a faint hint of blue in the grassy verges hinted at the glory that was here at the beginning of the month. But now the colour was provided by the pale spires of bugle, almost washed out compared to the earlier indigo of the bluebells.

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Tuesday 27 May 2014

The sharp movements of small dark figures was very noticeable under the still green quietness of the beeches. It was a pair of blackbirds, almost dancing around each other in choreographed steps. But their interaction was potentially more lethal, for they were fighting, presumably over territorial rights. Up and down, round and round they went, one occasionally darting in to stab at the other. At last one flew away in short spurts, pursued closely by the other.

As I walked back here a little later I heard triumphant blackbird song ringing out from the peak of a nearby beech, and wondered if it was the victor proclaiming his victory.

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Wednesday 28 May 2014

A sparrow dipped down to the canal and back up again. Another sparrow and another did the same. When I looked more closely I saw they were each taking a newly hatched mayfly, snatching it from the air just above the water as if they were imitating the local house martins.

More and more sparrows flew in to enjoy the feast. Some of them perched in the nearby willows to eat their prey, while a few of them flew away with it, presumably to present it to their babies.

The unusual activity attracted a pair of mallard drakes, who scooped the flies up as they rested on the water. And occasionally there was a splash, followed by a widening ring of ripples as the fish came to join in.

Yet as I walked on, the air still seemed to be full of the gauze-winged insects, fluttering feebly upwards, dipping down again to rest for a dangerous second on the water’s surface.

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Thursday 29 May 2014

The sparrows have again used the house martins’ box in my garden to raise their first brood this year. I had thought they moved in as the originally invited tenants weren’t interested in the accommodation. But a friend has witnessed a fierce battle in her own garden, where sparrows attempted to oust the house martin pair who were trying to build against the house in their usual spot. It was a loud squealing that brought her out, to watch as a sparrow held a struggling house martin’s wing in her beak as she tried to evict her.

Yet it’s the house martins who seem to have won, this encounter at least, for they have built their nest without later interference.

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Friday 30 May 2014

Absolute stillness and silence, not even a breath of wind. Emerald green turf stretched for miles, with huge rocky tors on the highest points and veins of white where the hawthorn flowered. The scent of the flowers filled the air of Dartmoor as suddenly the peace was broken with the high thrilling notes of a lark ascending into the blue sky.

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Saturday 31 May 2014

The Hampshire hedgerow was lushly green, studded here and there with the white of hawthorn flowers and the cream of dog roses, with the frothing heads of Queen Anne’s Lace at its foot. Starkly in the middle of this traditional scene was something that looked like a piece of modern art, taken from its gallery and plonked down in the middle of the country. It was a small tree, usually inconspicuous with its slender leaves and subtle flowers, which had been stripped of leaves and wrapped in silk by the spindle ermine moths that had colonised it. Its bare branches were just visible within the cocoon that made it such an uncanny sight.

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