The frost was like concrete the following morning. I stood on the doorstep and sipped my coffee, enjoying the warmth of the house on my back. It was six thirty, and stars unravelled in the East where the heather hill had become a two dimensional silhouette against the first glow of daylight. The dog had woken to the sound of the gun cabinet, and so she bothered my knees and whacked her tail on the doorframe.
It is a five minute drive to the merse, and duck were already moving when I arrived. The moon was a distant memory and the rolling passage of the creek was the same flat tone of the frozen fields. I could hear that several dozen wigeon and teal had come together in a rollicking gang around the bend, and I crouched down in the rooty bole of a horse chestnut tree, hoping they would come my way. A pair of half-seen goosanders croaked to one another on the water, and the dimpled, swirling tide picked up traces of the last starlight.
I have shot this creek for fifteen years, and I used to misidentify the waders which are ever-present here, assuming that they must be sandpipers. In reality, sandpipers are miles away in midwinter, and the constant buzz of sound and motion is caused by redshanks which chase one another up and down the strandline. There were greenshanks too last winter, but these were unusual in having come so far inland. This is tidal water, but the greenshanks normally prefer the pancake-flat channels further out into the Firth. It seemed that there were many more redshank than normal on Saturday morning, and when the action was over and I walked a short way upstream to warm up the dog, I must have seen seventeen or eighteen in a single three hundred yard stretch.
When the wigeon came, they did so in a black, sweeping gang, trailing banners and shrieking with delight. The shots sprang them up into a sudden climb, and two shapes came down into the tide with a plash. In the ensuing excitement, the dog plunged into the deep, fast moving water and picked them both; a real triumph and a tremendous test of her courage. She clearly wasn’t happy with the first bird, which had ended up on the steepest face of the creek’s far bank and required a difficult climb out of ice cold water, but she persevered beautifully and brought the cock back to my hand with a relieved expression.
The second bird was floating out to sea at a brisk walking pace, and she ran down until she was alongside it before a quick swim and an easy retrieve. Her work gave me far more pleasure than the shooting had, and she diligently returned to her vantage point by my knee in anticipation of the next challenge. Ice coated her whiskers and crackled her fur, but these conditions are what labradors were bred for and she never lost her poise.
There were a few more chances before nine o’clock, but by then the birds had largely settled down into their roosts for the day. Several cormorants followed the creek’s channel at about head height, trailing their wings like bundles of silage wrapper. This unassuming little corner never fails to delight, and I headed off up the hill to look at the cattle before breakfast.