Woke too early in a stew of sweat, old demons haunting me. Slept badly for the remaining few hours – weird dreams of an hitherto life rising up to jar and warp reality. When the alarm went at 6am I snoozed it twice. Ultimately I was late, 20 mins after sunrise when I arrived at Portmore, a wee bleb of a lough pinched off from the mother of Lough Neagh.
It’s a small RSPB reserve, dedicated to lapwings, and indeed there were a few mincing and fluttering their broad-tipped wings, flickering over the marsh, arresting me with their eerie cry. Last year, I was there for reed buntings, but I’ve got my quota, and my focus this morning were my elusive dunnocks. There’s a big thick hedge at the base of the bank that leads to the main expanse of the reserve. Perfect dunnock habitat. Except there were none. Plenty of wrens. Robins. Loads of finches, tits. Even chubby little tree sparrows were there in delightful droves. But no dunnocks. I puttered about for a good hour but no joy.
I was distracted and enthralled by the whooper swans. Whoopers are just that: they whoop and whoop as they fly, thrilling contact calls to hold the skein together. I love them as interlopers into our domesticated landscape, a winter blast, all the way from Iceland, maybe even Greenland. This time next month they’ll likely be gone, but for now they remain, rising off the water in the early morning to seek grazing, landing like bizarrely persil-white intruders into the nearby green meadows, easily distinguishable from any sheep at the furthest distance with their pristine gleam. They are also marked out from the more decorous mute swans on the water with their erect necks and chins, a constrast to the mutes’ demure inflection. And that yolk-yellow smear on the bill. Their flight is vigorous, the broad panels of wings beating like a pattern of Bridget Riley in white and grey. Whooper swans won’t be sidling up to you at your local duckpond looking for crumbs. I love their other-worldliness, that hint of tundra, volcano, fleshed in those muscular bodies, the striving necks, their raucous piercing cries; the fact that they’re wild.