Monday 27th May 2013
Awakened mid-dream by an 04:30 alarm for the second early start of the weekend. There’s some wispy cloud around and a distinct chill in the air as I drive out of the city and turn off the motorway onto one of the worst maintained roads in Hampshire. About one-third of the way down the single-lane track I stop the car and wait for a male chaffinch to finish hopping about in the middle of the road, then resume my journey and park at my destination on the edge of the Broadlands Estate. There’s a thin veil of mist over the fields that provides a distinct haze as I change my shoes and listen to greenfinch, chaffinch and blackbirds sing.
I set off down the lane towards the river as a cockerel crows and a pied wagtail searches the moss on the roof of a barn in the pre-dawn light. I cross the bridge, pausing a moment to watch a pair of mute swans a short distance downstream. Walking on, I reach a bend in the track and turn to watch the sun rise through the mist on the other side of the river, bathing everything in a warm golden glow. I walk on, listening to the birds singing, but the fields either side seem deserted and I’m wondering if the highlight of this morning’s walk is going to be that sunrise and a starling whistling what, as far as I could tell, was the Knight Rider theme tune.
I cross another bridge, over a tributary of the River Blackwater, and round the corner to spot a brown hare hunkered at the edge of a field on my left – too distant for photos, alas. Moving to the next field I notice a buff-brown shape on the far side, which I recognise as a roe deer; moving closer I can see it’s a female – a roe doe. I watch her graze for a few seconds when a smaller brown creature approaches her. Initially, given that I’m still some way away, I take this to be a large hare, but moving closer it soon becomes clear it’s a kid (the name given to baby roe deer). Fantastic!
I drop low and sneak up to the entrance of the field, using the hedge as cover. I virtually crawl into the entrance of the field and sit to watch. The doe washes her kid, which prances around her for a few seconds, before it moves underneath her and begins suckling. The doe continues to lick the kid as it suckles, stopping and staring at any noise, no matter how faint. The kid suckles for about a minute, before standing with the doe for another minute or so. My attention is distracted by a pair of pheasants that have arrived in the field close by and, by the time I looked back, the kid is no longer visible. Roe deer (indeed, all deer species) leave their young lying up in long vegetation for the first couple of weeks after birth, returning periodically to suckle them – the kid has apparently found a comfy spot in the grassy bank on the opposite side of this field. I sit and watch the doe for the next 10 minutes as she wanders along the edge of the field, browsing as she goes, until she moves into an adjacent field and out of sight. I back out of the field and onto the track.
Walking back to the car, another hare catches my attention in a recently ploughed field. Another one (possibly more) is hunkered down in a form. A sedge warbler belts out its staccato song from a nearby tree, and two lapwings pee-wit and dive as they display in the field opposite. I walk back to the bridge but, en route, I spot another roe doe feeding in one of the fields. I duck down and scootch along the hedge, rising every few seconds to check her position relative to mine. I manage to approach within a couple of metres and get some of the best views I’ve had of this species in the wild – she watched me watching her for a moment before wandering off to feed on seed spilt from the gamebird feeder. I arrive back at the car and decide to head into the Forest.
I drive for about 20 minutes and arrive at Hatchet Pond. Three ponies, one with a foal, graze the edge of the lake. I head out to spend a fruitless hour searching the heather and gorse for reptiles, as skylarks and an oystercatcher sing above and a cuckoo calls from a nearby plantation. While reptile hunting, I spot some small birds darting about on a nearby stand of gorse - my first linnets of the year. I stand in the head-height gorse for about quarter of an hour, watching linnets and skylarks dart about, the bright yellow flowers crackling gently and releasing a faint coconutty scent into the already hot air.
I leave the gorse and wander down to the edge of the pond, at which point two lapwings take flight, calling and diving. The birds seem anxious at my presence, perhaps nesting on the other side, so I walk back to the track, although this didn’t stop someone taking their dog into the heather and throwing a ball repeatedly as the lapwings called and flapped overhead. On the way back to the car, I spot house martins diving over a muddy area of the path at the edge of the pond. I secrete myself in a bush and watch as five birds wheel overhead, getting closer to the ground with each pass until they land. The birds dig about in the mud with their beaks before flying off – they’re collecting mud to build nests. Back in the car and off to look for reptiles elsewhere on the Forest.
I search an adder hibernaculum for about 30 minutes, but only find half a dozen very skittish common lizards – it’s only 10am, but it’s pretty warm and there’s not much in the way of cloud or wind, so I think most of the snakes have already basked and moved off to hunt. As I cross the field to the gate, a male cuckoo flies over calling and a crow mobs a buzzard. On the way back to the car, I decide to check out and area of dry dead bracken that looks like it might be promising for reptiles.
I get about eight metres in when a loud rustling in a pile of bracken alerts me to two grass snakes. They disappear into the bracken and I decide to wait and see if they come back out. After about five minutes, one small snake pokes its head out of the bracken and scents at me (i.e. flicks its tongue rapidly). Another ten minutes pass and a rustling deep in the bracken suggests normal service is resuming. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later I spot the first snake moving through the vegetation, followed closely by another – they split up to hunt different parts of the bracken bed. A third snake appears from further back in the bank and moves through. These all seem small – last year’s young, perhaps. Time's running out, so I watch for a few minutes before moving off to cut back through the wood to the carpark. A few metres into the wood I startle another grass snake basking by a stump; this one is bigger than any of the three I have just been watching. It sits in a hollow for two minutes before moving slowly off under the stump. Further on, I stumble across a bird of prey plucking post.
Back to the car and home to sort through 704 photos from a brilliant morning.