Just 8 miles south of Dumfries, overlooking the Solway Firth, is Caerlavarock Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust centre, founded in 1947 by Sir Peter Scott, son of Robert Scott, aka "Scott of the Antarctic".
He left a letter before he died in November 1912, which stated: "Make the boy interested in natural history if you can. It is better than games". Caerlavarock is testament to that wish.
The centre's tagline is: "A place where the wild world still has power to touch, thrill and inspire". I was about to find out if it would live up to its claim.
It's only two hours from Edinburgh, and Pauline and I had booked to stay over three days on the reserve itself, in what used to be the farmhouse, which for only £25 per night self catering, which includes your daily entry fee, was remarkably good value. Though the house is pretty basic, and has five rooms available, it has one outstanding feature: a private conservatory with picture windows that look out over one of the ponds. This means you are within a metre or so of all the wild birds, and especially close to a special night time visitor, more of which later.
Every day, at 11am and 2pm, the wardens feed the Whooper swans, and the crowds gather to watch the spectacle. Amazingly the birds seem to know what time it is, and gather in vast numbers, upwards of two hundred, eagerly awaiting their feed. If you weren't watching them you soon knew when it was time as the incredible noise they make, which gives them their name, would start. To me it sounded like hundreds of Laurel & Hardy comedy car horns going off at once, all different pitches.
They can be quite funny to watch, gathering occasionally in small groups to collectively "whoop" to each other, giving a real sense of community and friendship.
We were visiting quite near the end of their time in the UK, and soon they would be making their way through the Highland glens of Scotland on the first leg of their 850 miles back to Iceland for their breeding season.
Another winter visitor, in vast numbers, is the Barnacle goose. I was pretty impressed to see just short of 5,ooo birds all gathered together, until I read that in early January there had been 48,000 birds!
I'm no expert but the variety of birds all close together and tolerating each other was amazing. There were, among others I'm sure, Teal, Mallard, Widgeon and tufted ducks, Moor hens, Canada geese, Pink-Footed geese, Greylag geese, Mute Swan, Lapwings, Oyster catchers, Buzzards, Kestrel, plus all the usual suspects that are here all year round.
During a walk around the centre, which is enormous, we suddenly came upon a hare, sat quite calmly up on it's hind quarters, just a few feet from us at the side of the path. It looked at us for a while, yawned, had a good stretch, then quite happily and calmly sauntered across the path in front of us.
Around 7pm on the first night we settled down in the dark in the private conservatory to see what would turn up. Within a very short space of time a hungry Badger wandered by, munching away on the peanuts and honey that had been left out. It was a rare treat indeed, and the first wild badger I had ever seen. There was a full moon as well, casting it's light across the pond and onto the Badger. It was a very special moment. Not thinking that could be topped, we were there again on the second night and three turned up together! If that wasn't enough, for a very brief moment a Barn Owl flew past as well, no doubt chasing the rat that had just scurried along the water's edge!
At the end of the blog is a short ninety second video of Whoopers and Badger action (It looks just black, but click on the small play button bottom left. It may pixelate at the start of the badger scene, but stick with it).
One of the other highlights of our visit was going out for a midnight walk in the full moon, listening to all the night time sounds and still being able to see well enough without torches. It was a clear night and the temperature was well below freezing, but wrapped up warm it was a great experience.
On our second day we ventured out on our mountain bikes just twenty minutes down the road to visit the only triangular castle in Scotland, Caerlavarock, seat of the Maxwells since the 1200's. It had seen many transformations within the grounds, and fallen victim to many aggressors in its long history, but much of it is intact and well worth a visit.
Our journey home was through the Border hills, still carpeted in a foot of snow. We had only been back a few hours, and were taking a walk along our local beach, when we heard a familiar noise. Flying overhead in their typical V-formation, were a skein of Barnacle geese, heading north for their breeding season 1600 miles away in Svalbard, Norway. It felt as if they had followed us home.
It was a nice reminder of "the place where the wild world still has power to touch, thrill and inspire"