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Early spring's surprise party

We have arrived early at the party, pitching up for its gentle beginnings rather than the big cacophonous stramash.

Kirklauchline Cottage is far enough from civilisation to have a fine dark sky, and close enough to the sea to see a shag, below, a few yards from the door
Kirklauchline Cottage is far enough from civilisation to have a fine dark sky, and close enough to the sea to see a shag, below, a few yards from the door

It is mid-March and spring has not yet fully sprung, but we are here on the beautiful, bare promontory of the Mull of Galloway - whose cliffs are home in the nesting season to thousands of guillemots, kittiwakes, shags and razorbills - to get a taste of the Dumfries and Galloway Wild Spring festival.

Sometimes it's nice to be an early guest. You get to hear the individual voices, listen to one conversation, not drowned out by the crowd. Or at least you do if your youngest son isn't wailing because you put him in wellies, not trainers. Fortunately, trainers aren't far away, so we give in and put them on. Then we hear it: the trill of a meadow pipit as it cascades down through the sky, displaying its parachuting skills to any prospective mate.

It is Jone Ayres, RSPB guide, who identifies this call for us, then repeats it herself, with deft mimicry. These and the stonechats are the first birds she points out as we begin a walking tour. Though I grew up on a farm, my children are town kids, "townies", and gardenless ones at that. Hence, though they know a little about the pigeons and gulls that stalk Leith's streets (particularly those that happened to raise their comical and dumpy little chicks on the roof opposite our home), the razorbill, the shag and the guillemot are not familiar to them. Ayres asks them what they see down on the cliffs. "Seagulls," says my youngest son, Max. "Those are herring gulls," says Ayres. "No, they're seagulls," he insists.

We look down across the cliffs, searching for life. My husband, it turns out, is good at this. He has an eye for spotting the small detail, the floating dot on a lively sea. Perhaps it's years of editing (he is a journalist too), of spotting a lesser spotted error lurking in the text. A shag swoops across the water, tight against the cliff side; two birds bobbing on the ocean, one a diver, says Ayres. Max looks upwards and across the rocks. "Herring gulls," he says, pleased to be an expert.

This part of the world has not yet entirely woken up to spring. Birds are arriving, but not yet in great numbers. And this is what people keep telling me everywhere we go. It's as if everyone is telling us the party has not even started - yet still we are stunned by it.

At Logan Botanic Garden, where southern hemisphere plants grow in a gulf stream-warmed climate, my oldest son gallops, an exhilarated explorer, around the paths of this exotic patch of paradise. One of the gardeners tells us there's not much flowering yet. We are still dazzled by the giant tree ferns, so prehistoric-looking that we imagine any moment a dinosaur might come lurching out from between them. And there is one plant that she says is already beginning to flower, and it is the first time this rare, exotic thing, the King Protea, has done so outside in Scotland.

But one of the real pleasures of this trip is the sense that we are snatching a glimpse of things that locals already have a daily, intimate relationship with. At the top of this arm of land, the Rhins of Galloway, is Aldouran, a community wetland garden, whose delights are not just the red squirrels, woodpeckers, barn owls, toads, frogs and other wild creatures, but the people who know it and care for it: people like Geoff and Jean Shephard who know their birds and carry out the bird ringing each year, and lorry driver Brian Patchett, who since he was a kid has liked nothing better than wading about in a bit of pond water and fishing out the wealth of creatures that live there.

And what kid wouldn't love that? My sons become obsessed when Patchett hands them a net, and begin hauling out weed, mud, caddis fly larvae, damsel fly larvae, waterboatmen and other squirming beasties. "Just another dip," they keep saying. It's hard to lure them away from the water to the nearby bird-watching hide, though once they get there they forget the pond. Here is a window on an entertaining world of darting blue tits, chaffinches, red squirrels and woodpeckers - and the chance to get nifty with a set of binoculars.

After a few days of being guided towards nature, we do start to spot it ourselves. We start to look. We start to find our entertainment in the slow-paced, sometimes fleeting, show it puts on. At Kirklauchline cottage where we are staying, a soothing remote spot near the sea, we forget to switch on the television - and instead walk out into the night to look at the stars. We gaze up at Orion's Belt and out at a darkness more glistening than any back home (the only area in the UK with Dark Sky status is nearby Galloway Forest Park).

Leaving the Rhins of Galloway, we head down to Isle of Whithorn. At a beachside playpark, I find my sons peering over a white-bellied corpse on the ground. "It's a razorbill," they announce. At an idyllic cliff-top spot, we stare over the rocky edge, finding not shags or gulls, but a single bat darting among hovering insects. We have arrived early, but still nature has put on its show, and left us wanting to come back again for the all-singing, all-dancing party in full swing - or, rather, full spring.

The Dumfries and Galloway Wild Spring Festival runs from now until May 5 and includes more than 100 wildlife and outdoors events. Among its attractions are the Logan Botanic Garden, Aldouran Wetland Garden and the Mull of Galloway RSPB reserve and visitor centre.

See www.wildseasons.co.uk/wild-spring.

Vicky Allan was a guest of Kirklauchline Cottage, Portpatrick. Prices for 2014 start at £360 in the low season to £580 in high season for a seven-night holiday. See www.portpatrickholidaycottage.co.uk or call 01776 854201

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