The year begins with geese. I hear them from the spare room at Ashley’s, the unmistakable yap of barnies in their west coast stronghold. In summer Caerlaverock may be the castle of the larks, but in winter it is unmistakably geese who reign here.
It is a bright, sunny start to January and I have slept in, a little. The sound of geese and the sunshine draw me to the window. Pulling the curtain aside, I see rolling green fields descending to the silvery Merse. Sometimes dotted by off-white sheep, sometimes with the sturdy silhouettes of Belties, the view has changed little over the years I have been visiting here – and probably not for many years before. It is a bright, clear day and this familiar spot is a bonnie sight.
The garden, framed by conifers, thrums with life. A flock of long-tailed tits on the bird feeder – always together, these charismatic, gregarious birds. They alight, small long tailed balls of fluff and chatter merrily to one another – then off again, one and then the next, then all.
If a group of finches is a charm then what are these, I wonder? – for there are few birds more charming. A volery, responds my smartphone swiftly – pressed back into use after several days at the bottom of my rucksack. The word is unfamiliar but I assume is something to do with flight (calling upon my regrettably rusty French) – and not voles, despite their squeaks. A volery is a flight or flock of birds – Johnson, 1755. I am informed, but disappointed, put my cracked iPhone aside.
What would I call them, these sociable birds? They have country names aplenty – old names include fuffits, jack-in-a-bottles, hedge mumruffins, prinpriddles, feather pokes and millithrums. My favourite is bumbarrel, as in the poet John Clare’s May: ‘Bum barrels twit on bush and tree/ Scarse bigger then a bumble bee’.
I like knowing the words for things – the old names, and the scientific – of family and genus and species: what we can learn from them about birds, and what we can learn about the people who named them. Take Numenius arquata, the Eurasian curlew – numenius for the crescent moon, and arquata – arched or bow shaped. Both names refer to the bird’s distinctively shaped beak. Yet the common names, curlew and whaup, ignore the beak – it is the sound of this bird that matters, its eerie musical cry over moorland or the coast.
Then Puffinus puffinus – the puffin, of course. Except that it isn’t – it’s the Manx Shearwater, who were known as puffins long before the comical Atlantic Puffin gained the name. These confiding clowns are scientifically known as Fratercula artica – little brother, or friar, of the north. I like the words, and the stories, and I like the birds.
I watch the bird feeder a little longer, but it is morning, and I need caffeine. Sometimes I try to pretend to myself that it is not a need but a want, but it is too late in the morning and too early in the year for pretence.
I go in search of tea, am followed by Jack Russell Monty – his comfortable barrel shape trotting close behind me. Once seated with my mug, he makes several attempts to jump onto the sofa then curls up in my lap, a warm lump. He is a little creakier now than he was, his muzzle softened with grey. There are white flecks of hair around his soft brown eyes, which meet mine in a moment of mutual adoration. Ashley laughs at us both and I smile sheepishly. I have a very soft spot for this small, big-hearted dog. Monty repositions slightly and falls contentedly asleep. One of his ears is inside out. I stroke his back while we chatter about plans for the day.
And so the year begins – with birds and dogs and sunshine and the best of friends, and a hot mug of tea. In the afternoon we will walk through the woods – a rare pleasure – and see sunlight caught in gossamer spiderwebs, and wonder if ever anything could be as green as those closely set trees and those deep, soft mosses. And the sun will set over the sea – as it ought, I think, despite my years on the East Coast. It is a good beginning.