Cygnets and an unusual May visitor – a blue-phase snow goose

A great-crested grebe on the loch; almost a mirage on the shimmering water

A great-crested grebe on the loch; almost a mirage on the shimmering water


Three of the brood of cygnets on the estate loch were dabbling among the reeds with their parents

Three of the brood of cygnets on the estate loch were dabbling among the reeds with their parents


A very unlikely, but welcome, May visitor on the estate loch - a blue-phase snow goose

A very unlikely, but welcome, May visitor on the estate loch – a blue-phase snow goose

I’ve been distracted from blogging about my 2011/2012 wildlife survey because of my holiday blogs on wildlife on the the Uists. These wildlife survey blogs will now be out of synch with the date a year on, but hopefully should be no less interesting. This is part one of two from 20 May 2012


Monday 20 May 2012.  Weather:  Sunny, no wind; a great day to be out and about.

A day with an absence of wind is a great time to be on the loch, so I made for the estate loch; it was pretty much a flat calm. I spoke with Craig, the loch manager, who told me there had been a brood of 11 mallard ducklings that was now down to 2, and a brood of 8 Canada goslings that was also at the same low number. Like me, Craig suspected pike to be the culprits. I was disappointed but my frustration is always assuaged when sad events like this are natural rather than man-induced.  Craig also said that the previous evening he saw two great-crested grebes performing their courtship display. This did not auger well, and it was possible that they’d also lost a brood of chicks and were starting again.

A boat was ready for me and I edged it out into deep water. A quick scan round the loch with the binoculars revealed …… virtually nothing. I could see the two pairs of swans in their established territories and a couple of mallard drakes on the south shore, but the loch was unusually bare. Maybe the word ‘unusually’ is inaccurate, since it could be quite usual for many of the waterfowl either to be on nests round the lochside, or in the case of some species, nesting elsewhere. It was a disappointing start but probably in keeping with the time of year. I cruised slowly up near the south shore, listening in particular for any of the warbler family that was less likely to be found on the hill and in the estate woods. What I did hear was a real brouhaha coming from within the shore-side trees. A buzzard was rising from ground level and was being harassed by two incredibly raucous carrion crows. I was assuming the buzzard had been eating some carrion, or had caught a small mammal and the crows had harangued it so much it had left its meal; a bit like hyenas seeing off a cheetah. They trio jinked through the trees and into the field beyond, their route still traceable aurally even though not visibly.

As the disturbance calmed down I was able to concentrate on other species. An osprey was circling the loch at a height that I thought might be too high to dive on a fat trout. I wondered if it might be Laddie, the name given to Lady’s 2012 (and 2013) partner at Loch of the Lowes. It certainly was a smallish osprey and most likely a male. It was interesting that it kept near the shoreline, mainly on the north and east shore. It gradually lost a bit of height and at one point briefly closed its wings as if about to dive, but quickly pulled out and resumed its search. I watched it for about 15 minutes until my attention was distracted by a great-crested grebe almost in the centre of the loch. I confirmed that the grebe was on its own, then tried to re-connect with the hunting osprey, without success.

I positioned the boat near a reed bed at the south-west end of the loch, turned off the engine and sat and listened. It was still and quiet, not even a puff of wind or the quiet lapping of waves against the boat. After about ten minutes I heard the high pitched and machine gun-like chatter of a sedge warbler. The metallic chatter was quickly followed by an equally rapid cheep cheep cheep, not unlike a recording of a sparrow played at the wrong speed, then on an even higher scale, eep eep eep. This brisk series was repeated a couple of times, but though I waited a further ten minutes the bird never broke into its full song, nor, unfortunately, did I manage to spot it.

I did spot the west end mute swans, but they had no cygnets. As if to prove the point they swam closer to me. The last time I visited, the female – the pen – had looked really content on its nest, long neck curled over its back, and it seems a real pity the pair had no family to tend. Round the corner I saw the ripples as something dived. I hoped it would be the otter, but when a magnificent great-crested grebe surfaced near my boat I didn’t feel too let down. The grebe dived at various places round the boat and gave some reasonable photography opportunities.  As a diversion, nine Canada geese flew honking over the loch and landed in a grass field between the loch and the road.

I sailed down the north shore past the second pair of swans, who were shepherding six small cygnets, two of them brave enough to go off a few yards on their own to dabble in the reeds. Unfortunately this is exactly where a large pike was likely to be lying in wait. They would be a fair mouthful for a pike, but then pike have been caught with some remarkably large trout – or other pike – inside them. As another diversion two gulls flew over my head. I paid them scant attention, thinking they were just another two common gulls. The quiet call from one to the other immediately made me take more notice, and when I put the binos on them the chocolate brown head, red beak and red legs confirmed them as black-headed gulls. I had all but given up hope of seeing these extremely widespread gulls here. There is no marshy hill pond on the estate where they breed though there must be a suitable breeding site somewhere not too far away.

Strangely satisfied at having seen birds that I see elsewhere almost daily, I headed down the loch towards the harbour. A single goose well ahead of me was honking and my first assumption was that it was the Canada goose that had been steadily losing its brood. There were no goslings with it and I wondered if it had lost the complete brood and was now trying to communicate with its mate. I considered it would be odd seeing the male and female apart when they have goslings as geese are great parents. Getting closer to the goose, I could now see it was not a Canada goose. It had a greyish back, white tail, white head, speckled neck and a smallish darkish coloured beak. I knew there had been three bar-headed geese frequenting nearby Loch of the Lowes, but I was confused by the absence of the two distinctive black bars across the back of the head that give the bar-headed goose its name, and a darkish beak rather than the yellow one of the bar-headed goose. I considered a hybrid a possibility, but later had to seek expert advice from RSPB, who were certain from my photos that the bird was a blue-morph snow goose.

I’d to read up on the snow goose. It has two colour plumage types, referred to as ‘phases’ or ‘morphs’ – white (snow) or grey/blue (blue).  White-morph birds are white except for black wing tips, but blue-morph geese have bluish-grey plumage replacing the white except on the head, neck and tail tip. They are very vocal, a fact for which I could vouch.  The two morphs can interbreed and the offspring can be of either morph.  Some snow geese are winter visitors to Britain, though whether this one has been left behind or is an escapee from a collection somewhere will remain a mystery. In any case it was one of my most unusual sightings.






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