The tide comes in over a virtually deserted beach. Sand blows along it in sudden gusts, sticking to Bryn’s fur and getting in my eyes.
The water rolls in silently, often coming further up than I expect, so it rolls up my boots. And underneath it bubbles blow upwards from the faint funnels left by hidden lugworms. It’s just the effect a child gets by blowing soapy water through a ring.
The trees have grown into their habitat. They’re mainly oaks, sometimes ilex oaks, planted above Cornish banks as wind protection for fields and gardens. Their trunks have bent outwards, balancing the tree above the ground below, and their roots have firmly entwined with the stones of the bank walls.
A subtle fragrance grew stronger as I walked down the narrow lane below Helston church. Granite garden walls bounded it on both sides, but the scent definitely came from the lane. Peering down at the spread of rough greenery at the foot of the walls I saw lime green circular leaves in places. And among them were short stems of innocuous pink and white flowers, quite easy to overlook.
Blackbirds have been busily foraging in the damp leaves beside the lane. Today I saw two males squaring up to each other, dancing lightly from side to side, each determined not to give ground to the other. I wonder if the mild weather has brought forward territorial behaviour and the mating season.
Magpies that were common as solitary birds or in small groups now seem to have paired up. When one bird appears, emerging from a hedgerow or flying low from tree to tree, a second is not far behind.
Dartmoor was shrouded in heavy mist as we drove across its upper slopes. Roads that are familiar seemed strangely changed under the thick grey that smothered the landscape. The gorse and twisted hawthorns loomed suddenly out of the gloom, their branches beaded with drops of water. Not a creature was visible, although the yellow sign warning of lambs on the road was up again.
The piles of manure that recently marked the fields east of Stonehenge have now gone, presumably spread over the ground now that the first frosts have arrived. These wide open downland fields always attract large numbers of feeding birds, and this time they were pocked with the black blobs that were feeding crows. Further east it’s often huge flocks of pigeons that burst into the air at the slightest of scares.
A dark-coated fallow doe appeared silently on the track in front of me. Then came a pair, and another pair, all barely conscious of me as I paused. Soon they were coming in threes, then a small group appeared, bouncing stiffly across the open space.
All their movements created not a sound, not even a rustle of leaf or grass. They had undoubtedly been disturbed by our approach along the side path of the woodland, part of Cranborne Chase, but if we hadn’t turned left we wouldn’t have seen them making their silent way to more distant shelter.
A buzzard perched on a telegraph pole or fence post is a common sight on The Lizard, where tall trees are scarce. So I was disconcerted to repeatedly see a buzzard perched on a low fence post as I drove through Hampshire. Perhaps the birds are brought down to this level of perch when the light levels are lower; certainly it was a very dull day.
A dark shape appeared suddenly out of the low bushes in my front garden, like an actor projected from the stage wings. It was Binkie, my front garden female blackbird. She’d come to forage through the leaves that had gathered in the small water bowl I leave out for the hedgehog.
Billie, her mate, wasn’t far behind. While Binkie began to pull worms from the lawn Billie cocked his head, listening to the sound of my voice as I talked on the phone. He came closer and closer to the house until his bright eyes were fixed on me through the window.
Shortly afterwards he had what he wanted, a scattering of mealworms across the grass.
The beech canopy of the Hampshire woodland seems lighter, bleached, against the high sky. The sky is lighter too, a very clear and cloudless wintry blue. The tree branches stretch up against it in a filigree pattern, randomly augmented with the rough oval shape of a bird’s nest.
It seems as though nothing is moving in the natural world. But closer inspection shows the new leaves on the arching sprays of honeysuckle. Wild arum shoots are emerging through the carpet of dead leaves.
Badgers are still active too, judging from the interest Bryn, my young Border collie, shows in the distinct tracks in the undergrowth. The weather hasn’t been cold enough for them to tuck themselves up underground in the ancient setts that riddle the hillside here.
A sea of bleached grass dominates Newtown common. Beyond this the plantations that have been actively managed in recent years are showing new growth. Holly seedlings cluster around their parents. Pollarded chestnuts have put forth new branches in neat cup shapes, or untidy sprawling outward growth. A small forest of stems flourishes from a coppiced hazel stool.
The increasing piles of logs and heaps of brushwood testify to the on-going work that is being done here, providing both income-producing material and animal and plant habitat, as it has done over earlier centuries.
A thick curtain of rain drove across Hungerford common, looking like the traditional stair-rods, turning the trees and shrubbery into dark shapes in the greyness. There was no sound except the wind, until suddenly there was a burst of loud joyous song from one barely visible hawthorn bush on the edge of the grass. It must have been full of singing birds, the chorus was so loud and clear that I almost expected to see the bush shaking with the sound.
A thin smattering of snow lay among the crumpled leaves and weathered logs that edged parts of the canal bank. The water rippled gently towards us and a family of swans floated majestically through curtains of bleached grass. Two of the birds were serenely beautiful in pristine white, three were still youngsters, betrayed by the mink-coloured feathers that still sprinkled their white plumage. Yet they had mastered the regal breasting of the water and surveillance of the banks, briefly homing in behind their parents when they saw me, before deciding I was not going to feed them.
The low-lying land beyond the river was flooded after the recent heavy rains. The water courses that thread this area ran fast and deep through the shallower pools that had spread around the spindly trees.
A sudden vigorous splashing just on the edge of our raised path attracted the attention of Bryn, my young Border collie. We couldn’t see what was causing it, but we could see the ripples widening across the far edge of the water. When we went to explore we found one mallard drake vigorously chasing off another, the pursuer’s beak almost on the fleeing bird’s tail feathers. Floating along complacently behind was a female, her subdued brown colouring a distinct contrast to the vivid emerald heads and purple wing flashes of her suitors.
Hazel catkins dangled over my head as we walked over Newtown common. A tight clump of foxglove leaves sat beside the path. Older sprigs of wood sage barely cleared the layer of dead leaves that carpeted the ground, and sheltered the new growth that was just peeking out.
It was the moss that was most vivid at this time of the year, a bright green among the browns and creams of the copses that lay around the open heathland. Moss growing over tree stumps, along fallen branches, up living saplings and covering the trunks of well-grown adult oaks.
A single starling, possibly Stan who came here as a fledgling, was the first bird to return to the back garden when I scattered mealworms over the terrace. Bertie and Bella, the blackbird pair in residence, came a day later.
A pair of blue tits appeared too, quite suddenly, as if they’d been painted brightly against the willow branches. They were attracted by the newly refilled bird feeders.
But the wren still found her own food, perching on the hanging basket beside the shed to peck at the dried flower stems. A little later she was out of sight beyond the pond, but her progress was marked by the ruffled leaves that she was vigorously overturning.
The island bank was white with swans’ down, the soft underfeathers that were floating down as the birds preened. The three youngsters I’d seen earlier in the week were the busiest, their necks in sinuous curves, their heads tucked under their wings. Two worked from a standing position, one sat on the ground, while the nearby pen busied herself with a more desultory grooming.
Coots and moorhens were busy at the edges of the canal, the first time I’ve seen the birds around here for some weeks. The mallards had grown in number, and many of them were also hovering on the edge of the water, often huddling under sheltering willow branches or the overhang of the bank.
The seagulls were stationary too, perched in a row along the ridge of the old mill roofs. The first one stood higher on the tip of the ridge, like the figurehead of a ship.
The robin came again and again for the mealworms I’d put on my back garden terrace. He only flew up to the willow beside it to eat them, the shortest distance he could go to a safe height.
He was soon joined by Bertie, the male blackbird, who dodged the legs of the gardener who was giving the trees and shrubs their annual autumn trim. I wasn’t sure if the birds would be disturbed by his presence, but it was so cold and they were so desperate to feed that they ignored him, just keeping out of his way as he worked his way around the garden.
The skeins of seagulls made ragged arrows high up in the grey sky. Wave after wave swept past, so high up that they looked like the squiggly bird shapes drawn by a child.
We woke to a frosted world. Trees rimmed with ice crystals held stiff glittering arms up against a pale sky. Nothing moved through the crisp grass, and nothing had made tracks across its betraying surface in the night.
There wasn’t a wisp of wind, nor a stirring of a bird. Everything was still, frozen as I went out to defrost the pond and the water bowls.
The world was still frosted as I drove over the Hampshire downs. The colour of hedges and fields of stubble or new crop growth was uniformly muted into the whiteness of winter. The occasional ploughed field added another tinge of colour, its rich brown only lightly veiled with glittering ice crystals. The distant copses of trees were hazed with mist as the emerging sun melted some off the frost. But the sun was still weak, obscured by a bank of bruised yellow clouds.
The first sign of life was a group of deer, gathered close together well out into the fields, but keeping in the lee of a low hedge. They stood out vividly against the whiteness, and seemed startled to see us pass. A little later a flock of crows whirled over a line of hedgerow trees and settled on the field beyond. But not another bird was to be seen or heard, not even the seasonally numerous pheasants.
Distinct narrow lines run across the track in the Hampshire woodland. They show tiny claw marks, the drag of a low body and the sweep of a long tail, signs of the rats who use them. I guess they are attracted to grain spillage from the pheasant feeders in the nearby fields. The rodents probably make tasty meals for the wood buzzard who can sometimes be seen flying silently through the trees.
Sinuous gleaming curves shine in the water meadows below the Hampshire woodland. The winterbourne is flowing deep and fast along its whole course, a sign that the water table has risen after the rains.
Standing on one of its banks I can see the rippled surface of the clear water as it speeds past. Its force is unhindered by the waterweeds that usually stream out in the flow. The bourne bed is barren this year, and the white clumps of chalk and the bluish flints lying on the upper part of the bank show where the bed was dug out. It was deepened in an attempt to prevent the kind of flooding that blighted the village beside the bourne last year.
Badgers had created a sett in the scrubland that grew in the narrow gap between two ramshackle fences. We were exploring the permissive paths around the fields below the Hampshire woodland, and had first found dung pits on the edge of the wide path immediately below the trees.
But this main sett was on the far side of the valley, a comprehensive earthwork of holes and mounds with outlier entrances on the edge of one of the fields. The base of the wire fence had been folded up in places to create communication tunnels between the scrubland and the field, so the badgers had clearly been established here for some time.
I wondered if they had moved out of the woodland setts that had been used for generations, especially as in the last year I’ve seen much less sign of badger activity there. But it’s just as possible that this sett is the result of population growth, rather than relocation.
The loud harsh cawing resounds through my back garden, audible even in the garden room where I work. It’s a single magpie, perching on top of one of the neighbouring cypresses, bowing the tip of the tree under his weight.
I see magpies often when I’m out too, mainly on one or other of the commons. They are always single birds, not in groups nor yet in pairs as they were earlier this month down on The Lizard.
A pair of goldfinches have been coming to my garden for the last couple of days. They each perch on a separate nijer seed holder, but their characteristic head-bobbing action is still synchronised. For a second, one bird has its head down, extracting a seed, while the other bird’s head is up, its eyes scanning from side to side. Then the roles are reversed, and this movement continues second by second for the few minutes they are in the garden.
The bird zoomed into view from the side window of the car. It hovered for a second over the verge, time enough for me to recognise a kestrel, then it folded its wings back as it dived with a flash of creamy breast plumage. Another second later it was sitting in the tussocky grass, its catch dangling from its beak.
As we drove up the lane over the lower slopes of Dartmoor we stopped time and again to let oncoming cars pass. Skirting Haytor we were amazed to find cars lining the road and people swarming over the open landscape.
Snowmen stood alone or in groups, bare or clad with gorse hats and capes. Children flung snowballs, toddlers cocooned in thick wrappings took their first steps into a chilly world.
On the east-facing slope of the Webburn valley snow lined the fields above Widecombe, lit by the sinking sun and gleaming in the dusk. The pattern of the ancient hedgerows was highlighted, its patchwork shapes very clear.
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