Even walking along the towpath early in the morning it’s still very hot. Young roach float in the sunlit shallows at the edge of the canal. I half expect to see a kingfisher in action, but perhaps the reflected glare from the water is too strong, because I don’t see a hint of turquoise, even though it’s very quiet. Water traffic has increased in the last month, but generally the narrowboats are still at their moorings until later in the morning.
But I do see a buzzard, launching herself heavily from a willow on the far side of the canal. As she flies diagonally across the water and out of sight further down my side I catch a glint of silver in her beak. It looks as though she at least has somehow picked up a fish.
A tern flies overhead, straight as an arrow along the line of the canal, heading eastward. Its graceful, distinctive shape gives the bird the bird another name, ‘sea swallow’. I saw it yesterday too, flying in the other direction, westward. I was only a little later then, so I wonder if the bird has feeding grounds that it flies out to and returns from if it’s feeding young.
It’s like walking in a green world, silent except for the shush of the whispering beech leaves. Only the white bramble flowers show among the green, shining like stars in the gloaming of the Hampshire woodland.
Frothing sprawls of white common bedstraw and golden ladies’ bedstraw are threaded with the royal purple of knapweed, turning a stretch of roadside verge into a scene of seasonal beauty.
The wheat is ripening in a couple of fields I pass regularly, the ears turning golden brown. The colour matches that of the large hare I often see on the broad grass headlands around the fields. He’s become quite relaxed about passing cars on this quiet drive, and often lollops alongside as I go by, before he veers off into the crop. So I get a fine glimpse of his long legs, his big eyes and the black tips to his slender ears.
Thick entwined stems of wild clematis (clematis vitalba) hang between trees in a complicated knot over the path. In the sultry heat they give the Hampshire woodland a tropical look, almost as if there would be a boa constrictor draped over a nearby tree, a jaguar lurking beneath a bush. Instead I emerge onto the edge of the fields to see an expanse of wheat, with tiny cattle and even tinier calves grazing in the shimmering brightness beside a quintessential English village.
A large white bird sailed down the canal with great purpose. Occasionally she paused to ruffle her wings in the water, then once she rose spreading them wide to shake them dry.
She was an albino cormorant, her feathers white with a light dappling of mink on the back, and with the vivid yellow throat patch of her kind.
The town hall clock struck for half past seven in the evening. The sound resonated through the tall windows of the small upper room where I sat, listening to an author talk. From the corner of my eye I saw a movement outside and turned to see a pigeon landing in a niche in the stone arch above a window in the wall that ran out at right angles to the room.
It was a small, shallow niche and the bird manoeuvred carefully to fit her body into it. She ended up pressed against the wall behind her, just filling the width of the niche. After shifting her feet a little to improve her grip, she lifted a few feathers, preening, then settled down, her head turned over her back, one tiny eye seeming to peer into the room for a while before it closed.
Young blackbirds colonised the branches of the elder in my front garden this evening. One sat there for some time, his freckled chest plump, his eyes bright, staring through my sitting room window as if he was watching me read. Binkie, his mother, flew in from time to time, food in her beak for the babies who were already considerably larger than she was. The youngsters soon disappeared into the nearby laurel hedge, and until dark fell they could occasionally be seen erupting out of it like fluffy tennis balls and sinking back down out of sight.
A screen of wild white roses hangs between the field verge and the Hampshire woodland. Just above the screen, a strand of black bryony runs up a honeysuckle rope as if it could be used to raise and lower the roses.
Below, beside the track, the wide untrimmed verge hosts a number of flowers, including common spotted orchids – a few more of these each year.
Right in the middle of the track, risking being squashed, are a pair of mating snails, oblivious to their danger.
A marbled white butterfly fluttered over the field path, drifting over the long grasses that fringed the neighbouring hedgerow. It paused from time to time, sampling the purple knapweed and the yarrow. But its preference seemed to be for the clover that lay in wide stripes up the path, red alternating with white.
In the woodland, tall spires of purple foxgloves stand like botanical gateposts on either side of the track way that passes between them. This is an animal route, strongly defined in the long grass at the fringe of the beech tree plantation.
Wild flowers threaded bright strands of colour down the steep slopes that are the ramparts of the hillfort on Old Winchester Hill. Common and ladies’ bedstraw in cream and gold, bright yellow St John’s wort, and more unusually, the dark blue heads of rampion. There were dark green fritillaries floating across the display, and tiny specks of gold that were little skippers. Near one of the gateways a stand of burdock was seething with a positive swarm of marbled whites, that jostled for space on the small purple flowers that project from the prickly bulbous bracts.
I was admiring the conjunction of purple loosestrife spires with the looser clusters of scented meadowsweet along the edge of the canal towpath.
A small comma butterfly fluttered in, pausing on a stem, spreading its wings and displaying the huge bite that had been taken out of one, presumably by a bird. Nonetheless the butterfly seemed to fly with ease, perhaps drawn here for flower nectar from the scattered knapweeds.
There was a small heap on the far side of the ornamental canal at Stowe. I couldn’t make out what it was, perhaps a dead frog. A foraging moorhen came cautiously to investigate it, then seized it in her beak and carried it off. Long leggy strides sped her along the bank until she dipped down to the water’s edge and began to pick her way more carefully over the stones and through the reeds. At last a single tiny black chick broke from cover to meet her, and the pair disappeared behind a clump of plants to enjoy their feast in private.
Another moorhen was busy feeding her single chick, this time on the Kennet and Avon canal. She had a small silvery fish in her beak as she chugged along the far bank. Again she was met by her baby, who was allowed a couple of pecks at the fish before the mother gulped the remainder down.
At first it looked as though a heap of sacks had been dumped in the bleached grass of the field beyond the canal. Then I realised it was a flock of sheep, tightly clustered together, a ring of lying sheep circling the few who stood in the heat of the morning.
Fields of purple blue flowers in Hampshire turned out to be expanses of borage, grown as a crop for oil. It’s of great benefit to bees, as they are needed to pollinate the flowers. I’ll be expecting to see local borage honey later in the year.
The tiny white-green flowers of white bryony aren’t always immediately obvious. But they grow in great profusion on the climber as it spreads it corkscrew tendrils over trees and across fences.
Reed mace is growing along the canal, its cigar-like heads conspicuous among the reeds. It prefers shallow water, as does the teasel, where little purple flowers have opened among the spiky heads, attracting wild bees to sup at the nectar.
A wild bee nest had been dug out of the bank beside the canal, probably by a badger after the honeycomb. The disturbed bees had gone when I saw it, but the few remaining shreds of honeycomb had attracted wasps.
Ponies were clustered together on an open slope near Bramshaw Telegraph in the New Forest. They were clearly enjoying the sunshine, their tails flicking idly at the flies that bothered them. Beyond was another group, a tight-knit gathering of deer, both hinds and stags, fainter and almost illusory in the bright light.
There was sudden movement in the wet grass beside the towpath. A small damp furry creature, a vole, I think, dragged itself into cover. I couldn’t see how, but it was clearly injured and desperate to hide. Its path was marked by the faint tremor of grass blades, then a small upheaval as it dug itself a hole and sank into it. I placed a large leaf over its shelter, to provide some protection from the large drops of water that were still falling from the tree branches overhead.
Old-fashioned rectangular hay bales are stacked in a column in the centre of the field, awaiting the trailer ride back to the barn. Nearby overhanging hazel trees almost touch the tops of the canal-side reeds, creating a long green tunnel. On the earthen path fallen hazel nuts, not yet ripe, have already been opened. A squirrel has split his share neatly into two halves, while a bank vole has gnawed a hole in his, leaving faint teeth marks around its edge.
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