By midnight, the entire countryside was bathed in a silver wash of moonlight. Dark wracks of whin and blackthorn ghosted through the fields, and the light wallowed on the burn. Even the furthest snow-topped hills were glowing beneath the full moon, which hung from its cord in the silence. Faint stirrings of a Northerly wind brought the peat smoke from the woodburner down in a streak across the garden, and somewhere in the stillness, a teal bleeped. The signs were promising as I climbed into bed, but by five thirty the stars were lost behind a veil of light cloud.
As soon as I stepped out of the door, a cool Southwesterly breeze passed over my face and down my collar. No longer the pristine silence, now a passive whisper in the alders behind the house. But despite this last minute change, the moon had done its work. The gravel crunched and the car windscreen was flock-coated with crispy rime.
It is a ten minute drive to the mud, and then a short walk down into the gloom where the horse chestnut trees sag and bend their limbs into the soupy, racing water. I have been shooting on this patch for fifteen years, and each time I return there is less of it. The rushing water scoops tons of mud from the bankside until the turf is undermined and the grass roots waggle their toes in the sea. As a final trick, the plants themselves just vanish into the Solway.
The ground where I built my hide as a teenager has now washed away, and at low tide the spot is eight feet up in the thin air. This is a dynamic trough of brackish water, and even if the mud walls resist change for a day or two, the wreckage varies at the rise and fall of every tide. Now there is an entire alder tree wedged up against a newly exposed bank of shingle, and now it has moved down three hundred yards. Each gulping tide strands logs and kegs and the shredded thatch of a million grass stems along the strand.
While it was dark enough, the cloud had banked over the rising sun and delayed the day’s arrival. The dog cocked her ears as an otter slipped quietly past, leaving anonymous ripples which caught the coloured light in a long wake. The first birds did not return to these saltings until almost seven o’clock. A brace or two of mallard dropped in before the rush began, and then the ring of wings and the slight growl of wigeon hens lifted the curtain on the morning’s performance. But notable in the darkness was an unfamiliar trill of tiny waders which lingered amongst the dark silhouettes on the opposite side of the water.
These half dozen shapes scuttled and bobbed between the basking duck, squeaking so that the steep-sided banks of the estuary bounced and came alive. And as daylight grew, the shapes became knots, silver-white against the froth. A few redshank came for a moment to break up their bickering, then the twitching pilots coursed off again around the bend and out of sight.
I shot horribly, and missed every chance that came my way. The dog could hardly believe it until an errant wigeon came winnowing down onto the grass and lay quiet amongst the stacked heaps of green pencils. A few minutes later, a second bird parted from its company and landed on the water. By the time I got close, it was dead and spinning slowly round in the current – an easy retrieve for the dog who simply kept her rear paws on the mud and leaned in to pick it up. And what soft, warm bodies they were in my numb fingers, the blue beaks open and the eyes crossed with green pearlescent streaks. The little yellow mohicans shone into my palm as I settled down to watch the end of the flight through binoculars.
A gang of birds assembled beneath the grassy cliffs on the riverbank around the bend. Perhaps there were fifty in a group, but they swirled and shifted so often that pinpointing them was impossible. But it was odd to note that of these birds, perhaps only seven or eight were hens. The huge majority were dark-headed braggers, contesting and showboating themselves as the sun finally spilled over the cloud and washed the water with sparks. Even as they gambolled, they never dropped their guards. A peregrine hunts this stretch of the mud, and a sudden end is always around the corner.
Some goldeneye came whistling up the water, touching their wingtips on the surface and leaving a trail like a centipede in the sand. The frost was finally giving way to the sound of dripping, and I left the birds to their day.