There could have been small camps of early humans hidden deep in the thick tree cover of the Devon gorge below, betrayed only by wisps of smoke drifting up through the branches, fading as they reached higher levels and disappeared against the clouds of the blue sky. Certainly, the Dartmoor landscape would have witnessed scenes like this long ago when people were first colonising the land here.
But today it was ephemeral columns of fog that were coiling and twisting up out of the trees. These stretched along the gorge, thickly covering the steep slopes on either side of the river as far as I could see from where I stood high above. It was a silver landscape in front of me, the river glittering far below in gaps between the lichened branches of the gnarled trees that spread their branches to touch each other, guarding their silent world.
A blackbird sat on the fence of the Dartmoor garden, pecking vigorously at the peanuts in one of the feeders that line it, while a robin kept in the shadows below picking up the scraps that fell from above. Blue and great tits are the most regular feeders here, but there are still frequent visits from a greater spotted woodpecker and a nuthatch.
I lay in bed watching the light come up over the winter Devon landscape outside. Frost lay thickly over the fields, turning everything white, grass, hedges, trees. Even the sky was a pale opal colour.
Only the cows in a far field were dark shapes as they began their usual early morning saunter down towards the river that lay out of my sight. The first to appear moved slowly, casually, then the movement became quicker as the calves began to skitter ahead and their mothers moved faster to keep up with them. By the time the whole herd was on the move a rose-pink band was flushing the horizon.
Cows were on the move again as we drove back through Somerset. Half a dozen cows were wading with determination across a brook, the water reaching well up their legs and stretching up to the stomachs of the calves who were following their mothers. More cows were on the move through the lush meadow behind them, in a miniature English version of the great African herd migrations. The cows who had already crossed were grazing close together in the centre of another field, where the grass seemed as lush, but not more, than the meadow the herd was leaving.
It looked as though the layer of leaf mould under the beeches had come to a tumultuous life. The bronze leaves were sodden as the frost covering them melted in the sunshine. They heaved and wriggled and even flew through the air, upwards in reversal of the natural order of things. Busy among them, causing all the activity, was a host of blackbirds, joined here and there by greyer thrushes.
Catkins have hung in tight tails from the hazels for at least a month in the Hampshire woods and along the Kennet and Avon towpath. Snowdrop and daffodil shoots have speared up through the damp ground and thick layer of leaf mould in my garden. And I have had a pair of plumped-up robins coming to feed since last month, their red breasts gleaming in the dimness of the pyracantha branches as they wait for me to perform my mealworm spreading routine.
Three fallow hinds slipped across the lane, dark shadows under the gloom of the woodland trees edging the route. A stag followed them, balancing his antlers with care as he kept his place in the centre of the group, for he was followed immediately by three more hinds, clustering close.
It sounded like runners approaching along the towpath that I was just walking towards. But as I reached it two swans came down from the sky, their long white necks outstretched, legs extended as they landed in a long slide on the water. It was their wings I’d heard, beating powerfully to slow their descent.
A swan drifted slowly across the surface of one of the long lakes in the valley below Selborne village. Beyond, on the far bank, stood a slender upright grey heron. The heron launched suddenly into flight, out across the water, sharply around and steeply up into the trees. The swan drifted on, quite unconcerned by the sudden movement behind him.
Birds called, whistled, quacked, from on and above the lake. They were just dark silhouettes against the water, the shapes of geese, duck and smaller wildfowl.
But beyond the lake the grassy pasture rose steeply in the old deer park. One or two deer still linger here, ready to pop out of the thickets in front of Bryn as he passes, attempting to recreate a mediaeval deer hunt scene before me.
Today the occupants of the grassy slope were more numerous than the deer must ever have been, even if they were smaller. Hundreds of geese were clustered there in a flock, mainly greylags with their distinctive orange legs. They moved closer together as we approached, turning as one to watch us. A few lost their nerve and took off to circle a minute later over the pond, descending in what looked like a leisurely drift down to the water. The others stood their ground, watching us pass by.
My young Border collie knew the deer were about as he crossed from side to side of the woodland track, tracing their scent. But he didn’t spot them when they finally broke cover, bouncing through the trees beyond the thicket of gorse and brambles beside the track. They made no sound, I only knew they were moving when I saw their stripy backsides bouncing up and down for a couple of seconds until the deer were out of sight.
I wasn’t sure what the distant mound of white was along the field verge. When I reached it I found a big pile of chalk, dug out of the edge of the ploughed land by an expert excavator. One of the badgers from the nearby sett in the meadow below the path had made another entrance, or exit.
The last of the winter rowan berries hang in glistening clusters among the bare branches of the Hampshire woodlands on the chalky slope of the bourne valley. In the churchyard below is one of the first signs of spring. Snowdrops are opening beside the path with the promise of more to come into flower over the graves.
Walking and sliding over the woodland floor pushed the wet leaves into heaps, revealing the clumps of new primrose leaves that have sheltered under cover.
A new visitor came to my back garden today. A small slender grey bird with a flash of yellow on his rump, he bobbed up and down as he fed on the lawn near the pond. A grey wagtail.
Three robins came to feed in my back garden today, all co-existing amicably in a small group, so perhaps last year’s youngsters have stayed together for the winter. And while they were busy on the ground among the mealworms, a wren flew into the willow above them, perching there with cocked tail for a few seconds.
Browned leaves lay in sodden heaps against the crisp white rimed grass of the common. A female blackbird blended in beautifully with the leaves, and was only visible when she stretched her head upwards, pulling and tugging a worm out from under the pile she’d been searching. After her meal, she flew up to the branches of the tree nearby and sat contemplating the scene for a few minutes. All around her over the common other blackbirds were busy, their heads bobbing up and down as they conducted their own searches for worms and grubs.
One minute the darkening sky was clear, the next, clouds of starlings were corkscrewing down over the Somerset Levels. They landed in the reed beds to roost overnight, flattening vast areas of reeds under their weight. There were about half a million of them, filling the air with their cries, as they settled into place. On previous years, there have been up to three million of the birds spending the winter nights here.
A thrush has been appearing in my back garden since the recent freezing weather has started. He keeps to the bottom of the garden, away from the other birds, but if it is quiet he darts up to the terrace to snatch some mealworms from there and rushes back down the garden to eat them in private.
Once Bertie, the male blackbird, spotted him and hurried across to chase him away. At the same time, he also chased away Bella, the female blackbird, who at other times is the more dominant of the pair.
A dunnock has for most of the winter fluttered down to peck at the garden room window. He lurks in the overhanging wisteria, then comes down and hovers right by the glass, occasionally pecking delicately at it. There is a faint impression of his wings, and sometimes of his body, against the glass in all the upper panes.
He doesn’t seem agitated enough to be seeing a reflection and assuming it’s a rival, so I can only guess that he’s picking up tiny insects that may have splatted against the windows.
My own back garden starling flock stands at a dozen birds. One that I assume is Stan, their progenitor, usually arrives first and has a few minutes on his own. Then others come in quickly, by ones and twos.
The blackbirds and robins have been out earlier, feeding before the horde comes down, and they will visit from time to time during the day.
The blackbirds come hurrying from cover to cover on the ground, busy and purposeful. The robins appear to drift through the trees and shrubs up to the terrace, but their progress is just as purposeful. The grey wagtail appears like a ghost in the morning, keeping to the lower lawn if the upper is busy, but coming up to it if the other birds have gone elsewhere.
The starlings will normally only come again in the early afternoon, and there is nothing subtle or careful about their approach. Once on the ground, though, they are very alert, one head or another popping up every second from feeding to check for danger.
All of the birds who come, except the starlings, like to drink first, so defrosting the water bowls and the pond is a priority. The starlings are more interested in the food.
A single vivid stranger mingled with the mallards on the canal bank. When they took to the water the Mandarin duck went with them, staying close to one of the females, while a group of drakes trailed them both.
It was the length of their tails that alerted me, just glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. As I glanced up, I saw pale pink and buff plumage, elegantly marked with black. A trio of long-tailed tits had come to join the sparrows and dunnock in the willow above the pond.
A pair of wood pigeons sat near to each other on the telegraph wire. One was comfortably steady on the precarious perch, the other wobbled backwards and forwards like an acrobat who was losing his balance.
An occasional cock pheasant betrays itself with the brilliance of its colour in the buff and bleached fields. On the woodland edge, the feeder that the pheasants may still visit was surrounded by a grey cloud of pigeons, busily pecking up any grain that was available on the ground.
The sepia downland landscape of ploughed fields and bleached grassy headlands was highlighted by the hedgerow running up the slope. New shoots were ruby red in the late afternoon light. And overhead there was a flash of white as a red kite turned, its forked tail acting like a rudder, to scan the open earth.
The thrush in my back garden is mingling with the starling crowd as they quarter the ground in search of mealworms. But they only co-exist when the starlings stalk down to the end of the garden, the thrush’s favourite area, where he’s often to be seen, a pale figure going about his own business regardless of the invasion.
I’ve repeatedly seen stationary buzzards recently. Usually I see one individual perched on a telegraph wire, but increasingly I see an equally solitary one squatting in the middle of a ploughed field.
The viburnam plicatum shook as the wood pigeon shifted his weight and rebalanced on the topmost branches. His legs were splayed to remain steady as he pecked at the seeds on the tray of one of the feeders dangling from the bird table. This was the only way he could reach it, and the first time I’ve seen him doing this.
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