The fishers have returned. At least some of them have. Those anglers clad in tweeds, who wield rod and line in pursuit of the piscatorial occupants of the deep, must wait another couple of weeks before unveiling their new flies and casting off. And those other, more deadly, well taloned killers of fish, the ospreys, are yet to complete their relatively leisurely journeys from the Dark Continent, albeit that they may well be plunging into these waters before the angling enthusiasts start filling their creels.
The spring migration of those much-admired feathered fishers is not conducted with the same sense of urgency as when they depart in late summer. Yet as spring here seems each year to begin that little bit earlier, they could I suppose, turn up any day now. Several other fishers however, are already seeking their scaly prey in the waters of the loch with three especially evident. Goosanders, not necessarily one of the tweed-clad fisher's favourites, have been active throughout the winter, doucking and diving to exploit the scaly occupants of the loch. So too have the even more unpopular cormorants, those seemingly black submariners which down the years have become increasingly active away from the wave dashed shores of the coast and are consequently regarded by the angling community as menacing!
The third fisher is one that like the ospreys departs these inland shores during the winter to spend some time not faraway in Africa but offshore, in nearby coastal waters and in estuaries and firths. Great crested grebes, whilst perhaps not the true, long distance migrants that the ospreys are, are nevertheless to be regarded as essentially summer birds in these inland lochs. These slender necked pursuers of small fry were once on the verge of extinction because their soft, white breast feathers, known ironically as 'grebe fur' were coveted by the creators of nineteenth century fashion as trimmings for both clothes and hats. Thus grebes were slaughtered wholesale to meet the demands of fashion houses until by 1860, it was thought that the British population had slumped to a mere forty-two pairs.
Originally, this so-called grebe fur had been imported from the Continent but as demand increased, the unrelenting slaughter of our native population followed to meet rising demand. There was a time when a cotton cloth with a downy surface on one side was sold as 'grebe cloth', an indication perhaps that 'Fake Britain' was alive and well during Victoria's reign and thus has quite a long history! The passing in 1867 of Bird Protection laws however, happily gave the grebes some much needed breathing space and they quickly began to recover. However, notwithstanding the new laws grebes were still being killed. Thus a group of ladies formed an organisation called the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, pledging to refrain wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for food. Indeed such was the support for this conservation ethic, that within a year, they had reached a membership of over five thousand.
The population of grebes accordingly recovered and spread initially across southern England. These days, they have prospered well enough to have expanded their range across much of England, southern Scotland and those parts of the rest of Scotland that lie south and easy of the 'Highland Line. Durign the spring, summer and autumn, great crested grebes inhabit and breed on low-lying stretches of water, including slow moving rivers. They have long adorned our local loch and as spring advances, will begin a courtship ritual so full of postures and gestures that an utterly intrigued Sir Julian Huxley dedicated a treatise entirely to the subject back in 1914.
This remarkable courtship display sees a pair of grebes swimming towards one another until they meet, breast to breast before seemingly rearing up as if standing on the water's surface and shaking their 'horned heads'. They will also dive to obtain fronds of water weed which, as they come together, they present to one another. Grebes are very definitely not musical birds, for this courtship ritual is often augmented, by a coarse but loud croaking. Besides being decidedly unmusical, grebes are also pretty useless on land. Their feet are located so far back on their bodies that they rejoice in the soubriquet of 'arsefoot'. Hence they nest in reed beds, usually close to shore, their nests actually floating.
They are not much better equipped when taking flight either. When taking off from water, they need a long runway (or waterway) before at last they attain flight! Even then their flight is rather lumbering. However, despite their inadequacies on land or in the air, they are absolutely and utterly at home when in or indeed under the water. I spent many happy hours years ago regularly watching grebes from a ridge high above a quiet little lochan of crystal clear water. Now I could see grebes at their very best, arking below the surface, darting to right and left with all the aplomb we associate with penguins, as they went off in pursuit of the small fish they rely on and instantly becoming at one with the underwater world. These lith underwater actions were so clearly the very antithesis of the slow and clumsy movement they exhibit on land or in the air.
There is a distinct delicacy about the appearance of the great crested grebe, its slender neck offset by the frills and 'horns' around the head and neck, deliciously chestnut in colour. This makes them very different and perhaps less threatening than the predatory, black looking cormorants which, while exhibiting similar skills underwater, have otherwise a much more threatening persona. This demeanour is not enhanced of course by the fact that although their plumage reflects both green and copper iridescence, they are otherwise seen as black birds and as such are naturally viewed by many as being hateful!
Nor do goosanders, like cormorants, endear themselves to the angling fraternity. It is interesting that there is, I have read, to be a survey of both these species conducted on the River Teith and its catchment area. I fear the results of such a survey, may eventually lead to some form of control prompting in my mind the thought that these birds fish to survive whilst we fish almost entirely for pleasure!
If great crested grebes are not migrants in the full sense of the word, they do take leave of these freshwater lochs in the autumn to spend their winters largely at sea before becoming one of nature's heralds of spring when they return to their natural habitat. It is yet another encouraging marker signifying the passage of the seasons.