Country diary: the vanguard from Svalbard

They returned in record-equalling time: 28 barnacle geese, dropping out of the sky on 16 September, to the merse (the Scottish word for salt marsh) at Caerlaverock. As the geese came down, the Norwegian flag was raised on the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserve, a celebration for their safe return and the changing season. Autumn, on the shores of the Solway Firth, arrives in skeins, with a breath of Arctic air, a touch of Arctic wild.

There’s a hide at the edge of the reserve, where the merse-flanked firth is rolled out like a rug in front of the Cumbrian fells. This hide might be at the end of Scotland but it offers views in every direction. North: blue sky, the deep green of hill farms, and swallows flying towards the glass windows, veering up at the last moment to their still-used nests in the hide eaves. Their chattering calls a loud sound of summer, the short-tailed juveniles learning how to use their wings that will take them south to the tip of Africa any day now.

To the south, there are now 140 barnacle geese, the vanguard from Svalbard. This is a precious moment: the meeting point of continents and seasons. As the swallows leave, the firth will fill up with the rest of Svalbard’s 40,000 barnacle geese, spread out across the salt marshes on either side of the border. By the end of the season they will have relaxed, but their summer spent dodging danger on the tundra lingers with them for now. They keep a tight flock in the middle of the merse, their heads held high and wary between bites of marsh grass, as if still on the watch for Arctic fox or polar bear.

It is a heron that triggers their finely honed flight-tendency. They take off in a clatter of wings and yapping calls, swirling over the merse. My binoculars fog up from the face mask that I have to wear in the hide. I switch to my telescope to trace their flight and, as they move left, two smaller, more distant, birds head right. The long bent-back wings and bulging breast muscles of a pair of peregrine falcons, cruising at hunting altitude. Arctic fear has served the geese well.

o Stephen Rutt’s Wintering: A Season With Geese (Elliott & Thompson) is published in paperback on 15 October


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