Spring is filled with tiny traditions. We mark the first snowdrop, then coo at the catkins which come suddenly bright in the woods. Now there are song thrushes and skylarks, and the cattle sway beneath them in that star-filled stillness of dawn.
We walked last night along the old hill road as the sun slumped and the skyline steeped into foundering blue. It’s still too early to hear snipe calling, but recent days have brought an unholy warmth into this place. The birds are reeling from it, and they grasp at games which should be played in April. There’s a whiff of warming soil and the rocks are crispy and bright under our feet, so we rolled the dice and went to try our luck for a snipe in the final height of February.
Galloway lay beneath us. A broad spread of cooling country rolled away to the sky; forty miles of home without a single electric light to be seen. The last rub of day stirred the horizon into a thin red line which pooled and paled beyond the hills as stars began to gather.
The breeding song of a snipe comes to us somewhere between joy and unease. It’s not a sweet burbling trickle, but the mechanical rendition of air through feathers. A snipe does not speak his song; he plays it upon himself as if he were an instrument. We call it drumming, and the result is a moaning hum which makes your hair stand up in a prickle. A drumming snipe is a weightless thrill, but strong men collapse beneath the heft of it.
And in the final moments before thick darkness, a snipe began to drum. Gulled by the stillness or baffled by a panting day, he looped above us and joined one end of the year to another. If you like to pray, this is the time to do it.
By May it will be constant; the birds will drum at every hour of the day and night. Repetition dulls the punch of it, and it’s easy to ignore that sound. But for now it comes out of the sky like a starfallen ghoul, reeking of moss blossom and the crump of calves to come.