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.

May 2015

Friday 1 May 2015

We emerged from the Hampshire woodland onto the sloping water meadows in the shallow valley. And swooping over the clear water of the winterbourne was a single swallow.

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Saturday 2 May 2015

The scummy green surface on the pond, which I think always comes after the frogspawn dissolves, has suddenly disappeared. The water is now clear enough to reveal lots and lots of wriggling tadpoles, who all came from just one lot of spawn this year.

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Sunday 3 May 2015

My eye was caught by the sudden movement in the road as I drew the curtains. It was night, except for the light of a street lamp. And just on the edge of the brightness from the lamp was another quick movement. A small dark shape was spinning across the road, in rapid darting bursts. As I watched, the hedgehog’s movements altered and she ran briskly right across the road and disappeared down an alley.

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Monday 4 May 2015

The Hampshire woodland is a spring scene, the air scented with the faint elusive perfume of the bluebells that have flowered in a wide carpet under the beeches. The newly opened lemony green of the beech leaves in the canopy over the woodland echoes the colour of the euphorbia stands that sweep in highlighting curves through the broad wash of indigo.

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Tuesday 5 May 2015

A single house martin swooped around the houses edging the Stockbridge water meadows. It’s the first I’ve seen this year, and presumably it and its kindred can still find enough mud here to build their nests under the eaves of the houses.

The river was running full and fast through the meadows, and horses grazed on the thickening grass, their tails flicking idly.

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Wednesday 6 May 2015

Three young fallow hinds stood in the bluebell carpet that lies across the floor of the Hampshire woodlands. They were barely distinguishable from the bleached and contorted trunks of trees that fell long ago and now rear up in oddly natural animal postures. The deers’ colouring matched the silvery grey of the living beech trunks, so that it was really only with the first slightest movement that I picked out first one head staring towards us, then another and another. Eventually they bounded away, out of one plantation into the next, stopping from time to time to turn back and watch us.

May%20002It was some time later that I was drinking coffee under the trees in another plantation, watching Bryn picking up scents in the surrounding bluebells. I was keeping a wary eye on the trees, swaying heavily in the strong wind and occasionally screaming as one rubbed against another.

Bryn was thankfully sitting beside me when I saw the deer strolling towards us, heads down as they browsed, completely unaware of our presence. I sat there and watched them pass, and Bryn clearly didn’t pick up the slightest trace of their scent as he didn’t show any sign of interest in them.

It was soon after that the slight eerie screaming of the beeches changed, with a crack that sounded like a gunshot. This was followed by a loud yell as one high branch was torn away from a tree and fell heavily against another, which unwittingly propped it up, saving it from falling to the ground.

The deer were long gone, and I decided it was time for us to go too.

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Thursday 7 May 2015

Late this evening there was the first sighting this year of that waited-for sickle shape high in the sky. The first swift to return.

And the trees lining Hungerford common have emerged in full leaf, greening the scene for the summer.

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Friday 8 May 2015

The fields alongside the lane have turned from a mass of golden dandelion globes into a sea of ephemeral thistledown. Tiny stars of this float through the air, blown on the wind, drifting past in a growing stream.

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Saturday 9 May 2015

Delicate filigree leaves were opening on the ash tree, darkly silhouetted against the sky. They looked like strange jewels displayed on a stand. And suddenly there were bright splashes of colour among them, vivid yellow, as if the jeweller was adding new stock. A flock of yellowhammers, the males’ plumage newly minted for the breeding season.

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Sunday 10 May 2015

Spring flowers are out in profusion wherever I walk. Wild garlic Wild garlic flourishes in a churchyard.

Flowers in the beech woods

Bluebells and stands of white-flowered garlic mustard grow with lime-green euphorbia in the beech woods. Yellow archangel Yellow archangel grows among the bluebells too, an indicator of how ancient the woodland is. Greater stitchwort Greater stitchwort spreads across the verges of field paths. Bugle Bugle sprouts along the canal side. Comfrey Comfrey towers over the water, higher than the bugle, and comes in purple or white.

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Monday 11 May 2015

Lizard woodland walkDown on The Lizard in Cornwall ilex oaks line the curving avenue, where primroses and violets pattern the grass. Bluebells scent the air as soon as we enter the avenue gates, while further up they compete with the odour of the spreading masses of wild garlic that gleam like spring snow in the woodland.

Wild garlic

Two families of mallards are busy on the pond, with extraneous drakes hovering in a masculine group nearby. The adults’ heads jerk up, beaks snapping, while the tiny ducklings leap into the air to catch the midges that hover over the water.

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Tuesday 12 May 2015

A distant trawler is hazed by the sun, so that at a brief glance (and with some imagination) it could look like a many-sailed clipper speeding towards Falmouth. The cliffs where I stand, between Mullion Cove and Lizard Point in Cornwall, are ablaze with flowers.

Bluebells on the western Lizard cliffs Spring squill on the western Lizard cliffs

Bluebells spread down towards the sea, subtly scenting the air. But this year they are almost overwhelmed by the paler blue carpets of spring squill (above right), which have been flung down everywhere. Thrift on Lizard cliffs Bladder campion on Lizard cliffs Never before have I seen them in such quantity, so many of them that they outnumber the spreading tufts of pink thrift. The fragile white flowers of bladder campion (above right) more often seek the shelter of rocks, almost fading at times into the lichened silver surfaces.

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Wednesday 13 May 2015

A slight movement caught my eye as we passed the pond. Glancing back it looked at first as though a black rubber hose had wriggled out of the water. Stopping to look more carefully, I saw that an oil-black cormorant sat on the pond, where not a duck was in sight. The seabird had caught a fish and had stretched its head upright to swallow its meal, gulping it down a flexible throat. Once the fish had been swallowed the cormorant briefly resumed its search for another, the yellow tip on its beak bright against the dull water. Soon, though, it launched itself into the air, flying past us in search of yet more waters.

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Thursday 14 May 2015

We followed the white-post-marked path very carefully through the woodlands below Godolphin. This was once rich mining country, where shafts where dug for the tin that lay below the surface. River Hayle at GodolphinWe were wending our way round those shafts, all wired off, in the woodland that has grown up here, silent in this once noisy industrial area.

The river Hayle runs through the woodland and out into the open between small fields. Here it deepens in a straight narrow cut channel where the weeds that flow in the current were more obvious, streaming out in tresses of deep red and gold, coloured by the iron in the water. Drained Godolphin fish pond In the meadow beside Godolphin House swallows dipped and darted above the grass. Nearby the drained ponds that once provided fish to the house inhabitants were now thick with life of another kind, the rich colours of spring flowers. Bluebells screened the house at this end of the garden, and framed it from the orchard, where paths had been cut through the profusion of flowers.

Godolphin through the bluebells 1 Godolphin through the bluebells 2

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Friday 15 May 2015

Look beyond the profusion of flowers on The Lizard cliff headlands and there are other colours. The rich orange of lichen on the rocks. Lichen on the cliffs A shimmer of serpentine The glaze of ore in other rocks (below), which would once have attracted the gaze of local miners.The shimmer of serpentine colour in a stone (above right), which would have been equally attractive to a serpentine turner.

The glaze of ore

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Saturday 16 May 2015

The cuckoo still calls here on the Lizard, from the cliff headland at Predannack to the open sprawl of Goonhilly Downs. Woolly bear caterpilar Mating butterflies And on the cliff there are other signs of spring – a pair of mating butterflies entangled in the grass, a caterpillar crawling purposefully along the path.

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Sunday 17 May 2015

Bobbing grey wagtailThere is a pair of grey wagtails on the Cornish estate pond. One flies in long swooping dips over the water, jumping at insects, occasionally resting on floating branches. The other can only be spotted because of her endless bobbing up and down on her perch. She stands on a rotting stump beside the water’s edge, where she is almost totally camouflaged against the reeds and waterweeds behind her.

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Monday 18 May 2015

A young buzzard flew low over the field beyond the garden wall, his plumage conspicuous against the heightening greenery of the estate’s woodland trees. Certainly he’d been spotted by a rook, who pursued him relentlessly, dive-bombing repeatedly from above until the buzzard flew out of the rook’s territory.

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Tuesday 19 May 2015

Lankidden BayThe sea was blue and aquamarine beyond the cove, but the tide was out, exposing the sand of Lankidden Bay on The Lizard. Bryn, my young Border collie, scrambled over the barrier of boulders and rushed down to play where the waves were rippling gently below the rocks. We’d had a steep scramble out from Kuggar, up over the cliffs where paths were being strimmed round the rocky outcrops and through the gorse bushes.

I was glad to rest before pushing on further to Coverack, and as I sat on a rounded lump of granite, my back against the grassy slope at the foot of the cliff, I was able to see the large seabirds that dived repeatedly into the water, creating splashes of white that marked their submergence. There were perhaps a dozen gannets, which I’d first seen at Mullion on this visit to Cornwall. But on this trip they seemed to follow us along the coastal path, and this was the first chance I had to really watch them in action. The fishing was clearly good.

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Wednesday 20 May 2015

There were two tiny baby birds on the Cornish estate pond. Not moorhen chicks, as I’d first thought, but newly-hatched little grebes, with their mother in attendance. As I watched one youngster dived under the floating waterweed, followed at once by the other. Mama floated on, calling them to her with a high-pitched note when they popped up again, so tiny they were barely visible among the weed.

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Thursday 21 May 2015

Newly mown hayThe tractor was audible before we saw its bright red shape, driving up and down, round and round the field, leaving neat lines of grass curving beside strips of shorn stems. Screened by the avenue of ancient ilex oaks that lined the Cornish estate drive, I watched the young local buzzard standing on the ground, waiting at a safe distance for the tractor to pass. A blackbird flew by us, some small creature, perhaps a snail, in its beak.

The buzzard was waiting for larger prey, driven out of cover by the tractor – possibly mice, maybe rats, even rabbits. He pounced again and again, so he’d obviously gauged his post well. For a moment the scene reminded me of the frequently described images of harvest in earlier centuries, when the villagers turned out to ring the field as the crop was cut, staves in their hands to deal with escapees. Today there was just this one solitary watcher.

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Friday 22 May 2015

The Cornish woodland was hazed with bluebells, and bright with the new green growth of beech leaves. The waters of a brook ran musically down a pebbly bed, the stones colouring the clear water a peat-brown and rich gold.

This was an old industrial site, although it would be hard to tell that now. It’s past was betrayed by a marble quarry further on, and the remains of a mine chimney higher up the slope.

There is more recent digging activity here, with the most enormous holes of a badger sett in a steep bank in the woodland. It seems an idyllic spot to make a home.

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Saturday 23 May 2015

Hay raked for balingThere was a constant hum of working tractor in the background as I sat in the garden of the Cornish cottage. The grass was being turned, first spread out across the field, then heaped back into neat rows with strips of shorn stems between them, wider than they were yesterday.

The buzzard wasn’t interested in the work today. At least he wasn’t first thing this morning. As I walked under the overarching trees lining the cottage drive a huge shape virtually fell just in front of me out of one of the branches. The bird hadn’t seen me, but he had seen Bryn, some distance ahead of me. He swooped down over the collie, legs extended and Bryn swung round, startled. The buzzard braked his flight, rising sharply, and I don’t know if he’d been startled by Bryn’s reaction or if he’d suddenly become aware of me.

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Sunday 24 May 2015

Bryn, my young Border collie, was fortunately on the lead as we explored a new walk in Cornwall, leading down to another creek on the Helford. He suddenly became very excited, but walked to heel as I moved carefully along the edge of the field, in the shelter of the hedge. Ahead of us was a small circular prehistoric settlement site and just visible occasionally through the long grass was a flash of sandy red.

The fox was moving slowly, pausing to stare into the grass from time to time. We followed cautiously, and although she turned around sometimes to look seemingly straight towards us, her ears pricked above her small pointed face, she didn’t seem to detect us, perhaps because there was no wind to carry our scent. At last she stopped, turning round and round before sinking into the grass to rest in the sunshine. She had seemed very weary, but I couldn’t tell if she was elderly or a young mother with a demanding family.

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Monday 25 May 2015

Snail shells from song thrush's anvil

A heap of translucent snail shells lay at the foot of a jagged piece of Cornish granite among the heather of Goonhilly Downs. A thrush had obviously found a useful anvil and enjoyed a feast.

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Tuesday 26 May 2015

The motley coloured herd of slender heifers came down a wide grass track, raised slightly as a platform edging the buttercup-spattered grass of the meadow. I had just passed Stonehenge and it was as if I was seeing a group of purposeful visitors heading in the direction that perhaps some of their ancestors had taken. Although I doubt that the visit ended well for earlier bovine visitors to the monument.

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Wednesday 27 May 2015

Small rainbow trout were leaping out of the roadside tributary of the river Test at Stockbridge. Around them their larger brethren held their position in the current, repeatedly thrusting their heads and upper bodies through the surface. The pink stripes that run along their bodies from the plates behind their eyes distinguish them from the spotted brown trout that swam among them.

Rainbow trout breaks surface Rainbow trout in the Test

A solitary drake floated above the fish, and high overhead numerous swifts curved in constant swooping flight, their cries just audible down by the stream.

Mayfly on red car Mayfly on car window

And all around as I stood by the roadside was a cloud of newly emerged mayflies. Their curved golden bodies with diaphanous wings landed briefly on cars but mainly on the water. Some dipped down to it and rose again. Others died on the surface, drifting down past the waiting trout, who feasted on the bounty. So did the drake. And the swifts above reaped the insects that rose higher.

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Thursday 28 May 2015

The car’s headlights picked up the russet form trotting confidently along the lane. The beams highlighted the white shape of the bird in the fox’s mouth, before she turned aside into the hedgerow. Her youngsters would feed well.

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Friday 29 May 2015

My back garden is rich with colour, purple wisteria clusters dangling like bunches of grapes against the courtyard wall, the lower flowerbeds bright with the cream flowers of viburnams.

Robbie the robin is looking more tattered as he perches in the willow, but Bertie the blackbird is still glossy and plump as he feeds vigorously on mealworms. It isn’t long though until he breaks some of the worms down into small pieces, cramming his beak with them before flying away to feed his babies.

The plump starling youngsters are coming to visit with their parents, and already changing from their juvenile mink to more adult colours.

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