It was as if the seasons had suddenly got muddled up. There, serenely drifting across a mirror-like loch was the slender figure of a great crested grebe, seen here very much like a summertime bird. Just a few feet away from the solitary grebe, a little flurry of goldeneye were exploring the depths of the loch and then bobbing back to the surface. This, of course, unlike the more sedentary grebe, is a visitor from Arctic regions, a deep, deep diver of a bird, which breeds in the faraway northern forests. Regular attempts are made to encourage them to breed here with nest boxes erected near suitable Highland lochs but minimal success has been achieved, albeit that the first goldeneye known to have bred in Scotland, were recorded in 1970.
That solitary grebe will surely de-camp this airt any day now to spend the next few months in relatively sheltered in-shore waters off our eastern coast, perhaps in estuaries such as the Forth. I was a little surprised to see it still happily cruising across these inland waters in late November as they're usually gone from here by now. But of course, for birds that dive for their food, as do both the grebe and the goldeneye, unless the loch freezes it will, I guess, find conditions underwater if colder, otherwise unaffected by weather!
The loch has fallen relatively silent with the final lines cast and boats now hauled up for the winter. Therefore, the fish are in theory, given a respite as the tweed-clad wielders of rod and line have at last bedded down for their annual hibernation. The ospreys are long gone too, hopefully now ensconced in African climes where they may fish warmer waters. However, the statue-like presence of a heron stationed beside those still waters was a reminder that fish choosing to stray into the shallows are by no means safe from this awesome fisher.
I have much admiration for herons. They are patient beyond belief, prepared it seems to stand stock still almost for ever, waiting, waiting for the next meal to come swimming innocently by. Then the statue slowly and stealthily comes alive, those large yellow and black eyes unerringly trained upon the unfortunate victim, neck slowly drawn back like the string on a bow. Then like a striking serpent, that dagger like beak brings for the fish the denouement as it stabs decisively forward and grabs its scaly quarry adeptly before turning it and swallowing it whole. Then, hunger temporarily satisfied, the bird may continue to stand beside the water, its neck lowered, shoulders seemingly hunched, and eyes now apparently closed. Time for a snooze?
Sometimes the bird will stalk its prey, picking its way carefully through the shallows, each step so gingerly placed so as not to alarm the fish, neck held forward eyes always on the alert, the bird ever ready to revisit that cobra-like strike. Or, suddenly the bird is off to some other familiar fishing beat, its great wings unfurling, those long legs pushing for take-off. In an instant it is in the air, rhythmic but steady wing-beats propelling it away at a very respectable but apparently unhurried speed. Those voluminous wings - the wingspan of a heron is an impressive six feet plus - bear it majestically away.
Long ago, when falconry was literally the sport of kings, the heron was a much-prized quarry, admired for its ability to gain height quickly and thus evade the stooping falcon. Indeed, the heron became the subject of one of England's earliest bird protection laws when the venerable Henry - he of the six wives - decreed them protected from all assault in order that his falcons would always have challenging prey to pursue. It wasn't, I suppose, quite the same as today's legislative powers which by and large are drawn up for the benefit of the birds themselves. Henry's laws were framed very much for the benefit of the hunters rather than the hunted!
Mind you, whereas the reputation of the heron in conflict with the jessed peregrines of this world, is so good, my personal experience of watching a heron attempting to avoid the attentions of an osprey some years ago, certainly did not enhance the heron's reputation for escaping conflict. The said bird, complacently flying low over the loch, suddenly found itself pursued by an angry osprey, not as fast as a peregrine perhaps but maybe more versatile. Such was the ferocity of the osprey's assault that over the course of the next five minutes, the startled heron was 'shot down' three times, on each occasion managing to struggle free of the water, only to be downed again. Finally it struggled to the shore where it stood in bedraggled, abject misery trying to dry off. Furthermore, the osprey, apparently with a real bee in its bonnet, kept up the attack, repeatedly diving at the sodden heron and making it instinctively duck at each threatening pass, before eventually tiring of the game and sloping off, presumably leaving a paranoid heron to recover its composure.
However, herons are not entirely dependent upon fish as their main source of sustenance. In springtime for instance, the young of waterfowl, should they stray within the reach of a lurking heron, will readily be taken. And, watch out in springtime for herons, well away from water, ambushing migrating frogs and toads, emerging from hibernation. Small rodents may also sometimes be sought. I have seen a heron stalking on a roadside verge, looking for voles. Indeed, I have a clear memory of a trio of herons advancing in line across a field like so many wild-west characters seeking a shoot out with rivals. Every now and then one of the birds would break ranks and dart aside to stab with its beak and capture a vole...another denouement!
Herons are gangling birds, all leg, neck and beak. When they fly they fold their necks over their backs. Their long legs trail behind but that great area of wing can propel at a very steady rate of knots what are, by comparison with overall size, surprisingly light birds. Herons, despite perhaps being seen as solitary birds are actually very community orientated. They nest in high rise colonies often in pine woods and indeed my own early contacts with herons was through a colony which was located close enough to where I lived to be noisily evident right through each night especially during the month of May. The continuous noise made by the newly hatched youngsters, as they kept up a battery of pleas for more food, was amazing! Herons also organise creches when their young are first fledged. Thus herons are not as lonely as is often made out!
Those hibernating fishers may harbour dreams throughout the winter months, of landing handsome and of course, large trout. But by and large it will be the smaller fry, which may be threatened by herons and by the other feathered fishers such as the saw-bill goosanders. Otters are not so choosy but come next spring there will doubtless be plenty of trout ready to take the amazing diversity of made-up flies presented to them by the legions of rejuvenated enthusiasts!