On the road to Wigtown
(book capital of Scotland)
Black quilled crow
on a dry stone wall in the rain.
Reeds fringing mudflats
creased like an old photo
left in a drawer.
I stop the car
get out and breathe
hear the lick and spit of water
through tissue layers of mist
riffling water and sky –
an open book
lines of furrowed words
blurred by the press of birds’ feet
by the endless turning of
curling the edges
of this strange place
traced by a passing glance
I drive on.
in those wide margins
the Solway story
is written every day
whether I read it
The fog had lifted but a thick cover of cloud prevented any sun from coming through. We drove through a blizzard of autumn leaves along the coast road. I noticed a buzzard sitting on a telegraph pole hunched against the dull damp weather. It was low tide and the mudflats of the estuary stretched away till they merged with the grey sky. A silver lattice of water-filled gullies criss-crossed the furrowed mud, brightening the view.
We stopped at Castle Douglas nature reserve and walked through the Castle woods. It was silent and seemed devoid of birds although there were bird boxes positioned on many trees. The recent mild weather meant that some wild flowers were still flourishing – foxgloves and red campion among them. Black pods hung from the broom and red berries glistened with dew drops.
After a welcome stop at the small homely cafe we walked back through the woods and drove on to the Wetlands Wild Trust reserve at Caerlaverstock where the BBC Autumn Watch team were installed. Chris Packham and Michaela walked by with a retinue of cameramen and sound recordists.
A honking sound drew us to a large lake where hundreds of mallards, mute swans,mu Hooper swans, Canada geese and other water birds were dipping and diving. We watched from a glass-fronted viewing shelter and listened to a running commentary from a lady whose task it was to feed the birds from a large orange wheelbarrow.
An incoming tide washed the mudflats to a pale grey sheen as dusk fell and we headed back to a log fire. A hind sprang away across a field, her coat dark with rain, white tail flickering like a glow worm in the dim light.
In the middle of Weymouth is Radipole Lake surrounded by reed beds. It is an RSPB Wetland reserve where otters and water voles can be seen. It is the perfect habitat for many water birds and also marsh harriers and bearded tits. I visited on a sunny day in November – in fact the only sunny day this November.
Golden feathered reeds provide an appropriate backdrop for the birds of Radipole Lake. I was greeted by the excited applause of the Cettis warbler – as usual, heard but not seen. A few steps further on and a sparrow hawk flipped overhead, brindled breast feathers glowing in the low sun.
The water reflected the blue sky and swans posed for the camera. Black headed gulls (without their summer hoods) conversed raucously. A cluster of Canada geese kept themselves separate from the gulls, coots, mallards and moorhens circling in the centre. To one side a spring of Teal and in the distance a Little Egret in solitary stillness – a negative space.
A tall shape on a gate turned out to be a grey heron surveying the scene. At the North Hide someone said they’d seen a Marsh Harrier fly over as we approached – I was cross to have missed seeing it. A shelduck shimmered in Picasso blocks of colour. On a small island in the middle of the lake a cormorant spread its wings like the Angel of the North.
Alongside the footpaths the hedges were bright with the last of autumn’s fruits, varnished by the recent rain. Sloes, berries and ivy buds hung gaudily among the bare twigs tempting little birds like the goldfinch. Wrens darted and chirped juicily. Robins, blackbirds and dunnocks hopped around on the paths, unfazed by my presence.
I stood for a while gazing at the surface of the water hoping for the splash of an otter, but it was probably too late in the day. Surrounded by the feathered quills of the reeds, it was easy to forget that this haven for wildlife is in the middle of a seaside town.
A sepia landscape, static as an old photo. Silky shawls of brown reeds fringing still water. A hundred years ago the country was on the brink of war – the lull before the world changed forever. I thought about my grandpa and his diary of the conflict, charting his journey from country lad to gunner.
I walked quietly through this monochrome place, through mud, through a swarm of black flies, scanning the celluloid water for signs of life. The lack of colour became unimportant as I tuned into the sounds around me. Honks, whistles, squawks and eerie cries came skimming across the wetlands and reed beds. Why is it that water birds have such a bugling repertoire compared with other birds – perhaps because the element of water adds a glorious echo to every sound, encouraging exuberant rowdy singing …
Lodmoor is the perfect habitat for herons, egrets and a home for the European eel. A splashing sound in the reeds made me stop – may be an otter, but I couldn’t see anything. Today was a day of sound and imagination, in the absence of colour and clear views.
I heard a sound like a small donkey coming from the torn edges of the reeds – a Canada Goose. Mallards, Pochards, Coots and Swans were all gliding in slow motion through the still water, their outlines broken up like frames from an old film as they passed behind the stems of the reeds.
The air was smoky with clouds of pollution blowing from Europe. Overhead three Marsh Harriers were silhouetted gliding against the haze – two females and a male. One of the females had lost several primary feathers from one wing and part of her tail, giving her a vulture-like look as she circled clumsily waiting for a kill.
Suddenly I heard what I had come for – the hollow rhythmic booming of a Bittern. One, two, three times like the distant sound of a heavy gun.