A Song of Ice and Fire

Just before the cold hit
Just before the cold hit

This queer, scyzophrenic autumn continues to jolt and wheel itself between poles of ice and heat. In the yard yesterday, red admirals soared and glided over the hens to gorge themselves on the ragwort and the final trumpets of honeysuckle which still add a prosperous glow to the dying garden. This was in staggering contrast to the deep blue of frost at 7am, when the burst columns of rosebay willowherb looked like hopeless wreaths of rime. Plump, wintery bullfinches have been steadily building their numbers over the past few days, and several had banded together at first light to dismantle the dry stalegmites of dock seeds in the paddock below the house. The sun had just touched the birds and the cocks were glowing like rose hips when the entire troupe was scattered in miserable fury as a hen sparrowhawk flipped over the grassheads and blasted in amongst them.

The oscillation of hot and cold takes some getting used to, and by midday the season had changed altogether. The red limousin cattle in the fields below the house fell as if dead in the warm, still-growing grass, slowly working their cuds as a swarm of lapwings ghosted in amongst them to land with all the delicacy of paper aeroplanes, wings daintily upheld for a moment longer than sheer functional aerodynamics required.

With my desk partially cleared by 3pm, I headed out for a walk with the rifle on the parched, crunchy hill in just a cotton shirt. It was hot, and pounding up through the granite and peat drew sweat on my back. As I gained height, the Solway slowly widened from a fine ribbon of gold into a broad, prosperous channel, with the massive, clunking vertebrae of the Lakes on the far horizon. The sun was already at a steep tangent to the West, and all the quiet, rolling lands towards Castle Douglas and the Dee valley had taken on a gentle, golden haze.

The slight breeze on the high ground was cooler, but hardly so as I could notice. A grouse or two rose up and buzzed away, and as the evening progressed, I stalked right in to a roe doe, now neat in her winter coat. She finally spotted me and stamped her foot, and I heard the dog’s tail wagging in the red grass behind me as she passed out of sight with half a dozen beautifully executed bounds.

Sitting up on the high scree on the off-chance of a fox, I watched the sun finally sink behind the Stey Fell. All at once the warmth fell out of the air like a dead thing. My fingers had been soft and pliable in my lap, but now the joints were grinding in dull, throbbing swells. I would have left the hill then and there if it had not been for a small black shape which had appeared on the stones a hundred feet below me. I rested the cold binoculars to my eyebrows and found myself staring at a young ring ouzel – a sight so unusual in Galloway these days that I felt my stomach give a hard, lurching twist. I had been fairly sure that I had seen ouzels on this same face towards the end of August, but this was a surety – a youngster with brown wings and a toffee toned bib on its breast. As I watched, it bobbed off the rocks and hopped over the burgundy berry leaves, bustling through a forest of burnt heather stick. Every few seconds it would return to its original vantage point before either popping off again or gliding on short, hawky wings a few yards away to try its luck elsewhere.

The delight and novelty of the bird was such that I watched it for almost forty five minutes, by which time the grouse were starting to clock off and the sky was sprayed with stars. I was deeply, painfully numb with cold, and I found myself jogging the two mile track back to the car just to get my blood moving again. In a single day, I had been scorched and frozen; seen wintery roe and bullfinches, then been dazzled by butterflies, honeysuckle and a fantastic Mediterranean migrant.


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