NATURALLY THINKING

By Margaret Waddingham

Articles published in the Caundler Magazine

All birds at this time of the year are looking a bit odd ‒ blue tits have gone yellowish, glossy blackbirds have become bedraggled and speckled and starlings appear with brown heads.
They’re all having a moult. I picked up a small feather about three inches long, dark brownish-grey
in colour and very precisely marked with white dots along each edge, presumably left by one of our
great spotted woodpeckers. It hadn’t occurred to me before that it takes every feather to build up
to an overall, individual plumage. I looked through my book to read a bit more about feathers in
general.
Feathers, so it says, get worn out through the year, what with all that flying around, catching
parasites, brushing against trees and close proximity with each other. New feathers grow from
follicles in the skin, each new one pushing out the old in sequence so that the bird never becomes
entirely bald. It takes a small bird about 5 weeks to moult and re-grow flight feathers, whilst
migrating birds do it much faster. When the bird is in a real mess, like some of the blackbirds, they
become silent and inconspicuous as they’re vulnerable to predators. Which is one reason why
August always seems such a quiet month: all this changing of clothes has to be done in private.
Sitting round a table with a group of people from the village, we began comparing notes about
what’s been going on in our gardens. One, who is actually from the neighbouring village but is so
near that it doesn‘t matter a jot, has had barn owls drifting through his garden each evening as
night draws in. A pair of collared doves had been nesting in someone else’s garage ‒ a poor nest
of about four twigs balanced precariously on a curtain pole. ‘They needed parenting classes’ said
the owner of the garage. A pair of wagtails had been nesting in the garden of another whilst
another had spotted 22 buzzards circling over his garden earlier in the year. One, whose garden is
bounded by a stretch of the brook, had watched kingfishers flashing up and down for several weeks
but thought that their nest had been washed out during the floods that swept through the village in
June. Another was surprised to find eight slowworms coiled up together in her compost bin.
Someone else, who wasn’t in this gathering, reported a sighting of red kites over the village on
several occasions: one day they even went so far as The Trooper. She managed to get several
beautiful photos of them.
In our own garden I have been getting a bit peeved with young starlings. They cluster round the fat balls and squawk and squabble with each other and demolish the balls in no time at all. We tried not putting any out there for a while, but felt sorry for the tits and woodpeckers so put them out again. In no time the starlings were back. I wouldn’t mind so much if only their parents taught them some manners but really, they are the brats of the bird world.
One day a squirrel visited. He found the peanuts on the back of the fence behind the arbour and chanced his luck. It was tougher to get at than he thought, but eventually he managed to get into them by knocking the thing over. We said ’shoo!’, or words to that effect, and he shot up the willow out of sight. The nuts were moved to another site and a few minutes later, back he came. If ever there was a picture of a puzzled squirrel, that was it and I wished that I could draw cartoons. He was so puzzled he almost put one paw on his hip and scratched his head with the other. He ran backwards and forwards along the back of the fence for several minutes before he gave up. In the meantime, a tiny family of voles discovered the spilt nuts and gathered them up in glee, appearing and disappearing at the speed of lightning.
The squirrel is still around. He’s found the new site for the nuts and brazenly attacks them again, thumbing his nose at us before he takes off when we yell at him.
Snails have been getting a bad press recently (do they ever get anything else?) but even they have quite an interesting life. Did you know, for instance, that the shell, which is made of chalk, is mostly right-handed? That is, if you hold it upright, the opening is on the right of the shell. Its laborious movement means that it can’t chase prey which is why it relies mostly on plants that can’t escape. It does, however, sometimes gobble up ‒ in a snail-like fashion ‒ a few dead earthworms or slugs on the way to its more delectable vegetarian dishes. It’s a nocturnal creature and very susceptible to water loss from its moist body. At night the humidity is always greater so in hot weather it retreats backwards into its shell and plugs up the opening. It has quite an interesting love life too. Being a hermaphrodite gives a definite advantage to something which travels very, very slowly, as it increases its chances of meeting a suitable partner on the way. It even has a courtship ritual beginning with the two creatures pressing their bodies together, rocking to and fro and touching each other with their tentacles. Then each one pushes a harpoon-like dart, about half an inch long, into the foot of the other, then off they go and both lay their round, whitish coloured eggs beneath a stone or log and forget all about them.
It occurs to me that the people who find out these things must have a great deal of time on their hands.

About Margaret

Margaret WaddinghamI was born in Middlesex in 1935 and educated at a convent in Rickmansworth. In 1954 I moved with my family to Cranleigh in Surrey where I met and married Brian. We have two daughters and five grandchildren.
For 21 happy years we lived on the outskirts of Guildford, moving to Hatherleigh in North Devon when our children had fled the nest to get on with their own lives.

My love of writing goes back many years but it was not until I retired from RHS Rosemoor Gardens in 1995 that I was able to devote more time to this and my other favourite pursuits, gardening and the countryside.

For many years I was a regular contributor of short stories, poetry, nature and other articles to three women’s national weeklies, periodical regional magazines and local newspapers. I also had a book of the history of a neighbouring village and a couple of books of poetry published.

One day our daughters phoned to suggest, very gently, that they couldn’t get to us quickly in an emergency and that’s how we ended up in Stourton Caundle.

We couldn’t have chosen a better place and although Brian sadly passed away in 2018, I have come to appreciate the village more and more.

Genevieve (my mobility scooter for those who haven’t met us) and I wander the local lanes, drinking in all that is around me and when I can no longer do this I will still have a small, peaceful garden to sit in where nature comes to visit me.