Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

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The Theme is Death — Mary Tant's new classic-crime novel in the Rossington series — is published. Here, she writes about her love of wildlife and wild places.

Last month – December 2015

Tuesday 1 December 2015

The recent high winds have left a trail of fallen leaves and twigs, sometimes branches, along the ridgeway path on the downs. At the far end, the route was partially blocked by one of the wild cherries that have stood on the corner for many years. Its companions have gradually succumbed to the elements, and the lovely grove where I used to stop with my collies for coffee under the spring blossom is slowly disappearing.

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Wednesday 2 December 2015

Six little egrets were brightly white as they grazed on a small patch of boggy land. No doubt the recent rain has brought out large quantities of snails and frogs to provide a feast for the birds.

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Thursday 3 December 2015

Blackbird nest revealedThe leaves have suddenly been stripped by the winds from the rose that climbs over the front of my house. And revealed there, completely unsuspected by me, is a blackbird’s nest just above the porch. I wonder how many times I passed beneath it while Binkie was quietly sitting there on her eggs.

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Friday 4 December 2015

The trees on either side of the avenue looked as though they had been sprinkled exclusively with snow. But they were young cherries, already well covered with pale blossom.

Cherry avenue in bloom

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Saturday 5 December 2015

Magpies are more common on the lanes at this time of the year, enjoying the road-kill feasts to be found there. Generally the corpses are feathered, pheasants or partridges that lingered dangerously in front of cars. Recently I saw a pair of magpies that were so reluctant to leave their meal that they only scuttled sideways and flew off at the very last minute. A fraction longer and they’d have been road-kill themselves.

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Sunday 6 December 2015

The shapes of ponies were only marginally darker grey than the fog that lay thickly around them. The grey line of the Dartmoor lane was just visible before us as we plunged downwards to the village in the valley. There was no view, just the lane and the glittering tumbling water that rushed down beside us. The chiming tinkling of the water was the only sound to be heard at first. Then came the sudden pealing of the bells, ringing out with beautiful assurance from the church tower that soon came into sight. It’s a sound that must have reached other travellers on the fog-bound moor in just the same way for many centuries.

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Monday 7 December 2015

Small Dartmoor streams have grown considerably. They’ve slipped over their banks in many places to spread across fields, and ducks have soon spotted the new expanses of water and come down to explore them. The streams have often burst through gaps in stone walls to create waterfalls, where the crystalline flow tumbling into the ditches adds to the already overflowing water below.

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Tuesday 8 December 2015

There are normally two streams in the Dartmoor cottage garden, one running at an angle to join the larger one that goes downhill to the river below. Now there are lots of rivulets joining in, trickling through the grass as best they can. And the sparrows are having a lovely time, dipping first into one, then into another, before vigorously shaking the water out of their feathers in a shower of droplets.

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Wednesday 9 December 2015

There was a heavy frost last night, and it revealed that a night visitor crossed the lawn of the Dartmoor cottage on its way down into the valley. This explains why Bryn, my young Border collie, often starts awake in the middle of the night in a desperate eagerness to go outside. This morning he followed the fox’s footprints with great interest, as he does every morning. The only difference today is that I could see what he could trace, whereas normally I just guess.

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Thursday 10 December 2015

Mossy oak trunkThe oak tree on the Dartmoor village green has lost all its own leaves. But its trunk is still green, thick with moss, entwined with ivy and sprouting a swathe of ferns.

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Friday 11 December 2015

Hart’s tongue ferns were brightly green, studding the woodland slope at Dartington.Ferns in woodland Below were two little egrets, brightly white as they fed in the water that lay across the flooded field. Further round, the Dart swept on to the sea in a wide arc of water, deceptively smooth and serene as we looked down on it, unable to see the surge of the current and the debris it tossed along.Egret in flooded field

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Sunday 13 December 2015

Xmas tree dressing competition

Decorated Christmas trees stand in Widecombe church in an annual competition to vote for the best dressed one. It’s a seasonal sight, while the daffodils sprouting on the green beside the churchyard wall are definitely early.

Daffodils sprouting beside the churchyard wall Early sprouting daffodils

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Monday 14 December 2015

Two furry grey coils rolled through the grass, giving the impression of being part of a weird serpent lurking there. They were in fact the tails of two squirrels, floating behind their owners as they sprang onto a park wall in perfect synchronisation.

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Tuesday 15 December 2015

The recently dredged lake at Fonthill has been refilled with water, and birds have rediscovered it in large numbers. At one end were lots and lots of swans, brightly white in the dim light of the overcast morning. Further on, the swans gave way to the small black shapes of mallards and coots (or perhaps moorhens). It was, at eleven in the morning, too gloomy to see them clearly.

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Wednesday 16 December 2015

A swirling flight of birds dipped and soared over Salisbury plain, no doubt entirely oblivious to the aerial view they had of Stonehenge. At first I thought they were starlings, but as they passed overhead their elegant black and white plumage identified them as plovers, at least a thousand of them, the most I’ve ever seen together.

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Thursday 17 December 2015

Teasels on the downs

A forest of dried teasels towered over the edge of the dew pond on the Hampshire downs. Beyond, lines of trees in the valley and on the ridge echoed the bronzed autumn colour. At a different angle the same teasels glow in the light, which gives them a haloed effect, quite changing their colour.

Teasels with halos

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Friday 18 December 2015

There were unlit Christmas lights draping the fir tree at the end of a village garden. The dark silhouette at the top of the tree was feathered, but it wasn’t a fairy. A buzzard had clearly annexed the spot to view the surrounding land.

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Saturday 19 December 2015

The branches of the hazel tree on the downland ridge were bare of leaves. But they were still hazed with yellow as they were hosting a gathering of yellowhammers.

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Sunday 20 December 2015

The downland fields stretched out on either side of the road to the west. Rich brown ploughed earth patchworked the green pastures. Tree silhouettes were black against the sky, and in one, viewed in passing, was a huge inverted cone of a nest. There were no others of any size nearby; presumably nobody wanted to neighbour the buzzard or a red kite which had built there, with a fine view of potential prey.

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Monday 21 December 2015

The Cornish woodland sheltered us from the high winds and the continuous rain. As we turned away from the Helford river into Frenchman’s Pill, in the footsteps of Daphne du Maurier, the tide was coming in. The water surged into white horses, in spite of the sheltering wooded banks.

Helford River

Two herons stood, some distance apart, along the water’s edge. One was close enough for the water to lap his feet, the other was sheltered under overhanging branches as he waited on a small shingly beach. A couple of mallards flew in, their colours dimmed by the dull light of the rainy day. The two swans who floated on the water much further up still gleamed white in spite of the gloaming.

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Tuesday 22 December 2015

Riverside walk

Another sheltered walk, hiding from the worst of the weather, beneath the oak-clad slopes that lead down to my favourite place on the Helford river. It was very quiet, with just the sound of water birds breaking the monotony of endless drips and plops. There was the cry that I’ve never heard before, that of a little egret’s eerie call. The bird flew inland above the incoming tide as it surged powerfully up the creek. Beyond, the lonely sound of a curlew rang up towards us, although the bird itself was out of sight.

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Wednesday 23 December 2015

The tide was surging up the long stretch of sandy beach, waves rushing forward in a froth of foam before falling back momentarily. As the water receded, the thin layer left was bubbled with a myriad of tiny fountains, shooting up from the holes where hidden creatures - worms, crabs - were buried in the sand. They were waiting for this, the return of the water, to emerge from their burrows, having evaded the predators, human and avian, that wait on the turn of the tide.

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Thursday 24 December 2015

It sounded as if there were lambs crying in a distant Cornish field, but I couldn’t get close enough to see them. The field we were walking through was sodden and slippery, and I at least had to watch where I was going.

Soon we were in the woodland edging the ancient estate, following the way-marked path that wove around the old mine shafts from which the estate’s owners had once drawn a fortune. Water rushed through the leats that crossed the woods, and was considerably higher and faster than it is in the summer. And cloudy, so that the streaming red and gold waterweeds in one stretch of water were completely hidden.

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Friday 25 December 2015

Below us the Helford river curved widely, gleaming like dulled pewter under the overcast sky. Yellow tinged the field that stretched down the slope towards the river bank as daffodils came into flower. They marched in regimented lines down towards the water, their progress halted near the bank by a fringe of bare trees.

Daffodils on Helford River

A little egret flew past us as we turned into the shelter of more trees to walk along the river bank, and another soon followed it. Again I heard their unusual cry, ringing along the silent creek.

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Saturday 26 December 2015

The sea was rough, white horses riding the rolling waves under the strong wind. Diaphanous ribbons of sand flew along the beach, partially screening the few dog walkers from each other.

The gannets loved the weather, great swirling clouds of them hovered over the sea where the breakers began to rise to hit the beach. The birds wove patterns across the sky, their gaze fixed on the water and the fish below the surface. Time and again there were birds plunging down, such big birds, straight as an arrow as they dived. It was never possible to see individual birds emerge, the waves were too high, but they must have been feasting well, as we’ve seen them here every day that we’ve come to the beach this week.

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Sunday 27 December 2015

A solitary cormorant perched on a sodden branch that had fallen long ago into this creek of the Helford river and now lies in its centre, covered and uncovered as by the tides. The bird had spread his wings wide to dry in one of the brief spells between rain showers, and sat there on the exposed branch like a weird dark sculpture placed in an unusual spot to promote profound thoughts.

It was a good place to be, causing less damage than when he and his kindred perch in favoured trees. They drip salty water onto the branches and the salt eventually destroys the leaves beneath the perches.

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Monday 28 December 2015

Helford River

The Helford river curved past the eponymous village, its course hazed in the mist that lies between the sheltering banks. Seagulls poked into the muddy flats that the retreating tide has exposed. Later, when the water returns a small scarlet-painted trawler comes in with it to anchor beside the wall and unload its catch.

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Tuesday 29 December 2015

Daffodil field Freshly cut daffodils

Daffodils have burst into bloom in the small Cornish fields, where they are sheltered from the bad weather and warmed by the gentler climate. Yellow has been splashed generously between stone-walled hedgerows and in glades in woodlands and copses. The flowers brighten the rain-dulled landscape, and picked bunches stand in buckets beside farm gates and outside village shops.


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Wednesday 30 December 2015

Sancreed church's magnolia

Pink flowers cover the magnolia that grows over the gateway to Sancreed church. We passed this way last week on our way to Mousehole and first saw the display then.

Both times rooks were circling the upper branches of the tall trees beyond the church tower. The birds settled repeatedly on their nests, dark shapes against the black blobs, and I wondered if they could already be breeding.

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Thursday 31 December 2015

In a local Cornish field, pickers encased in waterproofs move among the daffodils, trying to salvage some of the flowers for market before they break into bloom.

Cauliflowers round a Lizard chapel Seedling Christmas trees

Cauliflowers are another local crop that has burst out abundantly, and their green-fringed white globes lay in ranks outside the shops. Cabbages growing above Helford village grow like footballs, lining one of the fields flanking an old chapel.

And one singular offering on a farm stall was particularly seasonal – seedling Christmas trees.


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