The crows were flying arrow straight to their nests, bird following bird in a regular row. Their black shapes and flight lines resembled the silver shape and movement of the plane high above in the sky.
Each bird clasped something in its beak. The sticks were easy enough to identify as nest repair material. The round object held by the front bird was more of a problem. I presumed it was food of some sort. Over the weekend there are often more human food scraps to be found on the common.
I wake in the mornings to the sound of birdsong, another sure sign that spring is advancing. It’s the thrilling notes first of the robin, then of the blackbird, that greet the start of my day.
Sadly their music is soon overwhelmed by the clattering call of a magpie. I see one of these quite frequently now, and suspect a pair are again building a nest in the row of cypresses at the end of my back garden.
The stark bright black and white caught my eye at once. So did the size. I normally see Robbie the robin perched in the willow branches, and either Bertie or Bella the blackbirds stand on the ridge of the shed roof. All peer in at me, then eventually drop down to feed on the mealworms I’ve scattered on the terrace. Whenever I look up from writing beside the garden room window one of them is usually around, accompanied now by Stan the starling and a few of his friends and a group of sparrows. Mid morning, regular as clockwork, four goldfinches come to perch on the nyjer seed feeders.
But today only one bird was in sight just below the window. A magpie had come to feed on the remaining mealworms, the first time I’ve seen one do this. He seemed very bright, and very large, compared to the usual bird visitors – even when I think of the wood pigeon pair who feed in the garden, pottering cumbrously around the shrubs and pecking at the ground.
The harsh cawing of rooks resounds for yards across the common around their copse. Individual birds are visible on top of some of the nests, presumably repairing the interiors. The recent strong winds have littered the ground with sticks of all shapes and sizes, ideal for restoring and building nests.
The tiny spot of red was vivid against the garden step in the sunshine. It was a ladybird, crawling slowly across the lichened grey stone, the first I’ve seen in action this year. It may even be the one I restored to its winter covering a few weeks ago after I found it curled up asleep in a deep bed of dried leaves.
The starling had a beakful of dried grass as he stood on my back garden terrace. The gathering of other birds to feast on mealworms had obviously attracted his attention. He stood still, seeming undecided, then paced up and down for a few seconds. It was as if he was making up his mind whether to drop the grass and feed, or to carry on with the task he was doing. He chose the latter, flying off with the nesting material. I did shortly afterwards see a solitary starling join the feeding party, which may have been the same bird.
Birds were darting in and out of the still bare hedgerows. The first tiny lambs were out in a field between Hampshire and Berkshire, wobbling on long rubbery legs after their mothers.
And in my back garden a big yellow frog leaped out of the violets as I cleared dead leaves and admired the tiny scented purple flowers. He sat quite still on the brick path, his head crowned with a yellow leaf that almost matched his skin colour. If I hadn’t known he was there he would have passed for a stone.
Greenish yellow clumps of mistletoe hang in some of the apple trees in The Vyne’s orchard. The snowdrops are over, but a few violets nestle at the foot of a mossy tree trunk and the first primroses are opening.
Moorhens ran long-legged across the grass to reach the ornamental lake. Further on is the wild lake, visible beyond an expanse of tussocky grass. There are few birds on the water, and they are only visible as black silhouettes against the light-reflecting surface. A coot is immediately recognisable, even at a distance. The bird is hunched over, head thrust out as it surges forward, straight as an arrow, heading for another coot that has intruded in the first one’s space.
Sheep are infiltrating almost every field we pass. Large numbers are dotted around like fallen cumulus clouds in one of the main downland fields we walk through. Many of them are lying down, rhythmically chewing as they stare watchfully at us as we pass by.
Further down in the valley there are newborn lambs still unsteady on their long gangly legs. Those born a day or two earlier than these are already out playing. Three of them run, one behind the other, across the grass, from time to time just springing up into the air one by one.
It looked as though a selective snowstorm had left the bushes lining the road covered in white. But the bushes were blackthorn, whose early spring blossom looks like a coverlet of snow over the bare branches, falsely heralding the return of winter.
Dusty yellow pollen branches lifted in cumulus clouds around the hazel trees beyond the blackthorn hedges. A stray white petal from these drifted casually downwards to land between the golden daffodil trumpets that nodded their heads towards the roundabout ahead.
I looked down from the lawn of Chawton House, over a view that Jane Austen must have seen when she lived nearby. Heavy horses wandered across the fields lining the drives, their movements slow and careful. These were working horses, whose forebears, or their relations, would have been familiar features of this landscape before the Industrial Revolution.
The pond waters were swirling gently as I looked out of the garden room window. I checked to see if a bird was bathing, but there wasn’t one in sight. So I guess it was a frog, making herself at home in the water as she waits for a mate, although there was no sign of her when I looked later.
A light fall of rain had softened the fields and the rooks were out there, taking full advantage of their opportunity. Every bird was poking a sharp beak into the soil, time after time. Two, maybe three, steps, poke, move on. The beak poking was frequently successful, many of the birds pulled their beaks out of the ground, clamped firmly around a juicy worm.
From time to time a bird paused in its pacing, cocking its head to once side as if listening to the worms turning below the ground. One rook had a struggle to prise his worm out of the earth. He braced his feet and tugged and tugged, lifting his head back and back as the full length of the worm was pulled slowly from its haven.
I could barely tell that the bird was there, in the almost bare middle branches of the escallonia in my front garden. As I stared through the bay window I focussed on her.
Binkie, the female blackbird, suddenly emerged from the brownness in which she had been screened. There she sat, fatly, eyes glaring around suspiciously. In her beak she grasped several long strands of bleached grass, hanging down from her face like a straggly moustache.
She flew eventually up into the pink blossom of the viburnam bodnantense, which was filling the garden with scent. I thought she was heading for the laurel hedge, where she had nested in an earlier spring. But suddenly she doubled back, flying low down the side path, and I’ve no idea yet where she’s chosen to build.
Another bird caught me by surprise today when I was passing through Newbury. It perched like an overgrown thrush on top of a tall garden gate, surveying the lawns across the street. It was a kestrel, sitting quite upright, her speckled white breast very evident.
There was a leggy calf, just one, among the small herd of Red Ruby Devon cows that grazed the pasture alongside the Hampshire lane. The first calf I’ve seen this year, and to see it here is an indicator of how popular the breed is at the moment. They are a lovely colour, especially against the brightening green of fresh grass.
The higher reaches of Dartmoor were bathed in sunshine this afternoon. As we walked across the Black Hill the lines of hills below were veiled with mist, dim shapes stretching out as far as I could see.
The larks were in full voice, their notes echoing down from high above. The pipits were singing too, as they parachuted down over the gorse and stone chats chatted as they sat on the peaks of lichened rocks.
It was a skylark that rose silently from the ground beside the track, spreading its striped wings and flying away with the purpose of a miniature aeroplane. The total absence of sound during lift-off and flight was disconcerting.
The rich buttery yellow of the newly emerged brimstone is conspicuous in the woodland of Lustleigh Cleave. I’ve seen a few of these butterflies in the last couple of days, mostly of here beside the sun-warmed rides.
The red ants have been brought out by the heat too, and are busy rebuilding their nests. The nests that are still in the shade aren’t active yet, but in the warmer corners the ground is seething with ants so that I have to be careful where I stop. The surface of one of the nests seemed to be moving, there were so many ants packed together.
I woke to a harsh coughing under the bedroom window. The sound came again and again, until at last I crawled out of bed to peer into the garden. A solitary sheep was happily grazing on the lawn and had to be sent back to the next-door field.
She seemed to be a harbinger of all the lambs that have appeared overnight, and of the close encounter that awaited me later in the day.
At first I thought it was a young dog, hovering on the far side of the cattle grid on the moor. Then as I got closer I realised it was a lamb, which must have squeezed under the pedestrian gate nearby. An ewe with a fine pair of curling horns stood there, watched closely by two of her friends.
My approach sent the lamb flinging herself against the wire fence as she tried to get back onto the open moor, even when I retreated to give her plenty of space. Then she went skittering down the lane and out of sight round a bend. I went back to the gate and opened it, standing still by the gatepost, keeping an eye on Mama as she called for her baby. She kept an eye on me too as she bleated again and again.
Finally a tiny plaintive bleat answered as the lamb came cautiously back to hover nearby. Mama called, baby answered, one deep toned, the other light, but the calls sounding remarkably similar. As the lamb came almost within touching distance the ewe’s call changed, shorter, sharper, and was repeated by the baby. I’m pretty sure it was a warning and acknowledgement. The lamb stood stock still, staring at me with tiny black eyes in her small white face. The ewe stood on my other side regarding me just as closely out of much larger eyes.
As a last resort I retreated further up the lane and half round a corner. I stood, not quite out of sight, as the lamb flung herself again and again at the fence. The ewe stood by the gate calling and at last the youngster went to her and jumped at the bars. It was a couple of minutes before one leg went through the gap between them and the lamb finally realised how to get back to Mama. She twisted and wriggled and at last she was on the moor again, rushing over to her Mama to suckle, tail wagging furiously.
Yesterday’s ewe brought her friends down to visit this morning. It was just after six when I heard loud baaing. For a few minutes I lay listening, then realised that there was definitely more than one sheep out there.
When I looked out of the bedroom window I saw a small group trotting confidently down the lane towards the cottage. As I watched they stopped by the corner of the garden, scrambling up a three-foot bank and pushing under a thick hedge to come in one by one. Watching them emerge was surreal, as if I was counting sheep to go to sleep. First one sheep came jumping over the ditch, then another and another. Eventually there were four ewes and a tiny lamb feeding happily on the lawn under the cherry tree. Those sheep who must have gone by earlier came hurrying back, anxious to join in the party.
There was a dead Painted Lady on the bedroom window-sill of the Dartmoor cottage earlier in the week. I had tried to save one of these butterflies in the autumn when I was here and found one fluttering around. Now there was yet another banging at the panes of the window, trying to get out into the sunshine. At least this one I was able to release into the outside world. I presume they had come in to hibernate and the warmth is bringing them out again to face the spring.
Early every morning a pair of great tits cling onto the long stems that protrude from the top of the hedge. From the bathroom window I look down on them, plump and appealing in their soft yellow and blue plumage.
For a second or two they seem to scan the garden on one side, the field on the other. They dip down to investigate the hedge, which is only just beginning to show leaf buds, and then they’re off, flying out of sight.
There are sheep on the moor, and sheep in the valley fields. Superficially the latter have less freedom of movement, but the straggling skeins of wool caught in hedges and fences show that actually they seem to move at will from field to field.
The cottage lawn is a big attraction and they have at least three ways in. One from the lane, two from the neighbouring field, all of which involve a scramble up a bank, a crawl through a hedge and a leap over a ditch.
They colonise the lanes themselves. I regularly come across a group browsing beneath the hedge on one side of Widecombe hill. If they’re not feeding they’re resting on the verge. I used to think that they came down from the moor, but now I wonder whether they venture out from one of the fields.
And in the winding lanes below I often meet one or more sheep, usually on the narrowest, most twisting lane of all. They stand to face me, their horns curling tight on their heads, watching me suspiciously as I edge the car past.
Hazel had been cut back in the autumn along a broad ribbon of woodland edging a Dartmoor lane. The cut stems lie in heaps on the exposed wide grass verge. And now the primroses are colouring the green, benefitting from the increased light to spread themselves out in a buttery yellow swathe.
Bryn, my young Border collie, has regular routes along the Dartmoor lanes and on these he has favourite smelling points. There’s the lane past the cottage, where a flat stone lies at an angle against the bank beyond a narrow stream. If Bryn hadn’t shown so much interest in this, pausing every time to sniff at it, I wouldn’t have spotted the faint track that leads beside it up under the hedge and away through the fields – past a paddock of chickens. Although a pile of pale droppings beside the stream would have betrayed a fox's presence here, the route in or out was less obvious.
Along a footpath into another Dartmoor village badger activity was more noticeable. Freshly turned earth lay in a pile beneath a hedge, and in it was a freshly filled dung pit, marking this lane as a territorial boundary.
A flock of sheep seem to move at will between the fields on either side of the Dartmoor cottage, and come in or out of them from time to time. This morning my attention was caught by very definite movement and as I looked out of the kitchen window I saw them bunched tightly together, trotting purposely through the gate from one field to another. The reason for this neat tightness of the flock and their steady speed was soon obvious. A black and white collie moved purposefully behind them, his attention fixed on the flock he was driving. And behind him came a shepherd on a quad bike, his sole purpose seeming to be to open and shut gates.
We came upon another moving flock of sheep, following them along a lane for some time, Bryn whining in agonised desire to join the collie working behind them.
This dog didn’t miss a thing. He was up on the bank, down in the ditch, moving from side to side behind the flock. And the sheep went where he wanted them, down the lane, over the narrow bridge and turning left to wait in a tight huddle while the collie rushed back to leap up onto the quad bike and join the shepherd.
Heavy rain and thick mist obscured most of the view as we crossed Dartmoor. Occasionally the veil lifted, and there was a brief vignette of the moor. Through trees the ghostly shape of Widecombe church tower loomed mysteriously. Further on a line of cows moved down a steep sloping field, their shapes black against the sky as if they were painted on the horizon. And among them, breaking up the regular shapes, was the tiny figure of a calf. They picked up speed as they descended, but I couldn’t see why – whether it was because of the gradient, or whether food or shelter lay below out of my sight.
Gorse is blazing in vivid yellow on Dartmoor, high up on the plateau and down on the slopes. Its brightness is a beacon against the winter-worn bracken and heather.
And occasionally there is the sight of distant flames, also bright against the moor. But these are usually soon obscured by the clouds of smoke that arise from the last swalings of the winter. Soon fresh growth will come through the burned areas, food for the stock that will roam here with their new youngsters.
The first frogspawn of the year appeared yesterday in my garden pond. It seems such a huge amount to be laid by one small frog.
And a new cat has appeared in the garden. One who likes to sit beside the pond staring intently into the water. She won’t find fish there, but I’m hoping she doesn’t have an interest in frogs.
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