My last day on the loch during my wildlife survey

A lone great-crested grebe. Where were the chicks?

A lone great-crested grebe. Where were the chicks?

A lone mute swan among the Canada geese on the loch. Again no cygnets, probably lost to pike.

A lone mute swan among the Canada geese on the loch. Again no cygnets, probably lost to pike.

Another day in my year-long wildlife survey of 2011/12 on a Highland Perthshire estate

Part 1 of 3


Wednesday 20 June 2012.  Weather:  Mostly sunny, improving as the day went on. No wind first thing, but picking up only to a slight breeze. 

Before the twelve months of the survey is over I wanted another quick look round the major estate  loch. I didn’t expect to see any new birds – though there are always surprises – but I was keen to see what breeding success there had been with the waterfowl there. The loch was a flat calm and as I edged boat number 1 out of the harbour I could hardly believe the amount of flies buzzing over the surface. There were millions; I’m sure a hatch must have newly taken place. It was great news for insect-eating birds and also for the trout in the loch. I thought there would have been more feeding activity from the trout: a hatch like that should trigger a feeding frenzy, but they’re fickle creatures. Maybe the flies were too high off the surface, maybe the sun being out put them off feeding, or maybe the flies were not to their liking. Anyway they absolutely swarmed on the loch for the first half hour, until a breeze developed.

The water was low, and in a part of the loch where there are orange buoys as warning of rocks just below the surface, the tops were poking through the surface today. This was to the delight of half a dozen mallard – four drakes and two ducks – that had claimed them as suitable places to chill out in the early morning sun.  A remaining rock was commandeered by a common sandpiper, that flicked its tail as I came closer, then flew off round the shore towards the harbour. The mallard were totally relaxed at my approach, still some 100 yards off, and most never even removed their head from below their wing.  Their vision of the ducks was almost a blur, partly because they were surrounded by the clouds of flies and also because I was looking into the sun. Light coloured moulted feathers were sprinkled on the mirror surface of the water, looking twice their size because of the reflected image.  A pair of swans was behind the ducks. There were no cygnets with them and I could see none sitting on the shore. I made the assumption that this was the pair from the bay at the other end of the loch, who had either lost their brood or the eggs had failed to hatch.

I cruised up the loch near the south shore, seeing a single great-crested grebe ahead. The flat calm was rippled by concentric circles as it dived. Craig, in charge of the fishing, had told me that a few days ago he had seen a grebe with well-grown chicks. This one definitely had no chicks in tow, so I scanned round the loch hoping to see another. If this was the mate of the one with chicks they probably wouldn’t be far away. A millpond loch is easily checked, and there were no more grebes to be seen – at least on the south half. Nine Canada geese flew over, like me, heading up the loch. They were very low and almost skimmed my head, resembling small bomber aircraft. I thought they would land but they began to gain height again and flew over the trees towards a neighbouring loch.

I stopped at the reeds where I had heard the sedge warbler on the last visit. A bird was singing in the vicinity but its sound was drowned out by a tractor harvesting silage in the field behind the lochside strip of trees. I listened for a while and gave up, though from what I could hear through the rumpus of the tractor and baler I didn’t think it was the sedge warbler. Now that I was up the loch I spotted another grebe in the bay at the top. It had come from the reeds, but had no chicks in tow either. If they were as big as Craig said they could be resting in the reeds; it’s a possibility as the grebe didn’t dally overlong on the water and quickly returned to the reeds. A lone swan was also in the bay. It was tight to the reeds at the very top, and swam further into the reeds until it was out of my sight. The reed bed is narrow at this point and it could only have gone on to the bank behind the reeds out of my view. Might its mate have also been there with cygnets? I thought this unlikely as this was probably the pair from the bay, and they had no cygnets the last time I saw them.

As I turned and made my way further down the loch I hoped to see the north shore swans and six cygnets somewhere around the reeds there, but there were none. I can’t help thinking the pike have been feasting, but there was some optimism as a mallard with five ducklings took cover in the reeds at my approach. The ducklings looked at least a week old; still a fine size for pike but at least they had made it thus far. Two small ducks flew over my head, making for further down the loch. I didn’t instantly recognise them and before I could lift the binos my attention was taken with a single swift on a fly-catching foray, wheeling back and forth above the line of trees behind the reeds. I watched it to see if it was in the company of others, but despite it being in the area for at least ten minutes it remained alone. Swifts often scream and screech as they feed, which may be a social interaction. This bird was silent, possibly because it had no companions with which to communicate.

Further down the loch I met up with the common sandpiper again, feeding on the shoreline in company with several young pied wagtails, tails wagging frantically as they waited on a parent returning with a beakful of flies. It was a busy corner: next to them stood a young oystercatcher, still ungainly but its grey and brown downy overcoat showing the first signs of feather growth. These birds are more independent than the neighbouring wagtails, beginning to search for food under the parent’s guidance much more quickly. The parent was nowhere to be seen. Had I been this close to its chick on land it would have been frantically circling me and peep-peeping its displeasure. On a boat I was just part of the fixtures and fittings and not a human at all.

I tied up the boat for the last time, and chatted with Craig. He told me his son had built a hide to observe yet another pair of swans in the largest reedbed on the loch, which lies between the harbour and Craig’s house. Craig confirmed he had seen this swan on eggs, though had never seen it with cygnets. This was a pair that I didn’t even see on my last visit, yet it’s not easy to hide two birds as large as swans! As I chatted to Craig, seven greylag geese approached low overhead, circled above the harbour and flew back in the direction from which they had come, as if this loch wasn’t to their liking. The Scottish breeding population of greylags was initially confined to the north of Scotland and the Western Isles, but greylags are now breeding in many other parts of Scotland rather than heading back to their Icelandic breeding grounds.  My observations of the loch were complete for the year, yet without satisfactory answers to all the puzzles. I now headed for the rest of the estate.

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