A flurry of white feathers on the pond, a pile of guano on the front doorstep and two peanuts in a corner of the hall. Welcome signs of wildlife at Pond Cottage and, note, they are not all outside the cottage. While swans (mostly) keep to the pond, our doorstep guano is deposited by bats roosting above the bedroom window, and the peanuts were left by an inquisitive red squirrel which ventured inside the back door.
Yes, a red squirrel. We don’t know why but the reds seem to be thriving in our small patch of woodland in Perth and Kinross, far from their usual sightings further north. In fact, defying the norm, the arrival of the reds has coincided with a retreat of the greys. Perhaps that’s because there’s been an energetic cull of local greys by more diligent conservationists in our neighbourhood (I’m afraid we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to trap the alien grey, Sciurus carolinensis, introduced from North America in the 19th century and generally blamed for the decline of our native reds ). But in any case the greys now seem unexpectedly wary – on the odd occasion they venture into the garden they keep a respectful distance until the reds have finished their morning feast on the bird table. And the reds have made themselves very much at home. Most mornings we watch three of them chasing each other across the grass, frisky and surprisingly undeterred by our presence.
No bird feeder is safe from a squirrel, grey or red. One morning I opened the curtains to face a plump little animal inside the most robust bird feeder we possess, right outside the bedroom window. It looked me in the eye, paws neatly clenching a prize peanut. It seemed in no hurry to leave, though a little panic set in (on both sides of the window) when the little creature had difficulty squeezing out through the bars protecting the feeder.
There is something special about looking a wild creature in the eye. A kind of mutual recognition that I can’t find words to describe. Wonder, delight and some sort of sadness that the moment cannot last, perhaps. Yet the great magic of Pond Cottage is that there are many moments like this, however fleeting.
This year, arriving and leaving by car, we have travelled with young deer running beside us along the lane. Occasionally we disturb a pair of buzzards teaching their young to fly over the beech trees by the pond. A young hare lollops round the cottage in the early morning. And bats chirrup in late afternoon sun. Don’t let anyone tell you bats cannot be heard by human ears – they twitter and chatter when the sun hits their roost. I thought I was imagining things until I traced the sound to a corner of the eaves above the bedroom window and spotted piles of dung on windowsills and the front doorstep. Which means two roosts perhaps?
Watching birds and animals feeding and sheltering round the cottage we see quirks of behaviour that aren’t explained in the guide books. So many unanswered questions in our little notebook. Why did the adult swans leave the pond earlier this year instead of staying to rear a brood as they have done for years? Even more mysteriously, why and from where did they return with five cygnets in September? Now, just as we were getting used to having them around, the adults have disappeared again leaving the young ones behind.
Red squirrels raise questions too. Who knew they were so competitive, so friskily flirtatious? Energetic battles round the bird table this autumn reveal surprising rivalry for territory and food which we haven’t noticed before. Does that mean there is now more than one pair rearing young?
And what on earth lured Squirrel Nutkin through the back door into the cottage? That was a surprise for both Ray and the red – not quite under the bed but very near it – and it took some time before the poor, frightened animal could be guided outside again, leaving two nibbled peanuts in the corner.