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The days seem to just fly by when you spend them watching wildlife

It was officially the first day of winter, the clocks had "fallen back" only a few hours earlier and a bright early morning sun was illuminating the vast mud flats of Aberlady Bay.

At the wooden bridge leading to the nature reserve - the Footbridge to Enchantment beloved of Scottish author Nigel Tranter - the quiet was broken only by the raucous piping of oystercatchers, the gentle quacking of mallard ducks and the singing of finches, pipits and tits.

Further down the path, the sounds of the water birds faded. The peace and quiet of the morning was all pervasive.

Then, with a startling suddenness, one of the most incredible and spectacular natural wonders Scotland has to offer began to unfold.

It started with what sounded like a small thunderclap, half a mile distant where the mudflats of the bay meet the Firth of Forth.

Simultaneously they started rising, thousands upon thousands of pink-footed geese, freshly arrived here from Greenland and Iceland. Their high-pitched honking became almost deafening as the birds formed V-shaped skeins and passed overhead to spend the day feeding in the fields of East Lothian.

There is little to do but stand looking skyward in awe at what is unquestionably one of nature's wow-factor spectacles.

Incredibly, it was repeated three or four more times in quick succession until, within the space of half-an-hour, more than 30,000 pink feet had flown over my head.

The people of Aberlady, a village on the East Lothian coastal road, barely bat an eyelid at their winter avian visitors. They see and hear the geese leaving every morning and returning in the evening.

To the visitor, however, there is something magical about watching so many geese take off in a seemingly haphazard fashion and sort themselves into a chevron formation within a matter of seconds.

Aberlady Bay has long been recognised for the quality of its wildlife. In 1952, it became Britain's first Local Nature Reserve. Hundreds of plant species are supported and the animal population includes roe deer and stoats, but the area is most prized for its birdlife.

The Scottish Ornithologists' Club moved its headquarters from Edinburgh to Aberlady in 2005. The building, Waterston House - named after ornithologist George Waterston, a former president of the organisation - commands an excellent view over the bay as well as holding a superb collection of wildlife books.

Wintering pink-footed geese may be the star species at Aberlady but a keen birdwatcher can tick off up to 50 species here on a given day.

There are large populations of wading birds including curlew, redshank, golden plover and lapwing; eider ducks, wigeon, teal and shelduck frequent the estuary. Short-eared owls hunt over the marsh; kestrel, peregrine and sparrowhawks are regular visitors, and smaller species such as skylark and reed bunting nest in the area.

It is no wonder Tranter, who lived along the coast in Gullane, fell in love with the place.

A plaque beside the bridge at the reserve entrance reads, "Nigel Tranter 1909-2000 Scottish writer who walked this coastline daily, writing as he went. He was always glad to return here, to … the unending sigh of the waves on the far sand-bar at the mouth of the bay, the calling of the sea-birds, the quacking of mallard and the honking of the wavering wild-geese skeins which criss-crossed the sky."

That feeling of pleasure and relaxation, mixed with awe at the amazing scenes of nature, captivated Tranter. Anyone who pays the reserve a visit this winter, from the casual walker on the John Muir Way to the more dedicated wildlife enthusiast, will leave feeling equally impressed and enriched.

Iain Lundy was a guest of Ducks at Kilspindie House, Aberlady, East Lothian. Double room from £115 to £135. Contact 01875 870 682. www.ducks.co.uk

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