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The Crack Of Dawn

2nd of December 1997

With the shorter days of winter comes the chance to be up “at the crack of dawn” without setting the alarm too early and the chance to see the night shift clocking off in the garden. My early morning runs with the dog (well, not early really) have been much more rewarding lately with regular sightings of foxes and Tawny owls. One of the foxes that comes through the garden and over the field opposite has a very distinctive dark, almost black, coat and is quite small and timid. Another is a pale chestnut colour with a broad white chest. The latter is much bolder, just trotting a short distance from me and turning to have a good look before continuing at his own pace. He has a regular route under the fence by the footpath and across the goat run to the beech tree and into our little wood. I hope they dont take a fancy to my bantams this winter!
It was lovely to hear the Tawny owls hooting one morning when we did get up early to go on a bird-watching trip to Essex. As I ran up the footpath, the hooting was just above me and on stopping, I saw a perfect silhouette of the owl perched on a branch of the poplar tree. The male makes a “Hoo Hoo” sound and this particular male was answered by the “Kay Wick” call of a female in our little wood. After a second or two, she flew over my head on her silent wings and they flew off together into the Christmas tree patch.
I was just making tea on my return when I heard a magpie making a great commotion in the pine tree. The first rays of sunlight were just catching the tree and the magpie was jumping up and down on a branch just beside the owl box. To my delight, a tawny owl was perched in the box entrance, with the sunlight just catching its beautifully speckled breast. The poor bird sat there for a few seconds until a jay came to join in the persecution. This was too much fir the owl, who dropped down into the bottom of the box. At this, the magpie proceeded to do a victory “dance” on the roof of the box! Its a hard life being an owl.
After finding a young grass snake and egg cases in one of our compost heaps last year, I have been careful not to disturb the heaps too soon. When I finally did turn them, I was disappointed to find no signs of snakes at all. It came as a great surprise to find part of a sloughed off skin as I emptied the compost bin a few days ago. As the snake grows, so it must shed its outer skin and it will do this, depending on age, three or four times a year. Although there was only a small amount of the almost transparent back skin, there were loads of the long “plates” from the underside. From the size of these it was an adult snake, probably several feet long! It will be hibernating somewhere now but we will all be on the look-out for it again next summer. Wendy Bathurst

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