Its body was gone, knawed and drenched clean to bone, the spine looping the rib cage like a tail. The wings, though, the neck and the head were as though untouched by anything. Turned on its front, so that the remaining feathers of its back hid the shock of plundered corpse, you might think it had died only hours ago. Even in this state, it was beautiful. A barnacle goose’s plumage is the perfection of monochrome, every shade between purest white and purest black in there somewhere—the extremes of the spectrum boldly contrasted in piebald parts, and intricate gradations of the subtlest silvers and greys stippled and striped and suffused.
This bird is a victim of this winter’s bird flu outbreak. Here on the border of England and Scotland, the wintering site for all of Svalbard’s breeding population of barnacle geese, nearly half of the 40,000+ birds that call these grassy marshes on both sides of the Solway Firth home have perished.
I’m with Brian Hodgson today, who has worked on the Rockcliffe marshes for forty years and known them intimately since he was a child. There can be few people who know these geese better, and in all that time he’s never seen anything like this. ‘There are fewer dead birds about now, but back in November, you just walked among them, thousands of them. It only takes 24 hours from catching the virus. The sick birds just sit, and then die. These geese are everything that is adventurous about a wild place, and to see them like that is just so sad’.
At Brian’s instructions, I look up from the dead bird at our feet to see its colours and patterns mirrored at large far out on the marsh. ‘Geese as far as you can see from one side to the other.’ That’s no exaggeration, even with the losses this year. I scan round slowly with my binoculars; as far as I can twist myself from left to ride, the skein of barnacle geese like a seam of dawn light lifts and falls with the tides. They are not like murmurations of knot, which turn so that the whole wader body shifts colour as one. Rather, the effect of these geese on mass is caused by every individual registering itself distinct in the many. Each bird glints like mica in granite, or quartz in dark igneous rock.
I pick up a wing feather from the goose below me that has worked free. It is at once thrilling and disheartening to hold. It is dull and inert, detached from its purpose as from the bird, useless and earthbound as me. But to have it in hand is also to connect yourself with some residual flight magic, the miracle it should have performed only days from now all the way to the top of the world.
‘Any time soon, they’ll be off,’ Brian says. ‘One evening, the birds will lift as one, spiral higher and higher. It’s quite something to see and hear. They’ll do that evening after evening, and then one night, that’s it. They’re gone.’