At the beginning of last week, Monday was a gloriously sunny and bright day, although a cold wind blew. I decided to spend the day at Loch of Strathbeg. I had a fabulous day, had the reserve almost to myself and certainly was the only person in the hides.
Walking along the boardwalk to one of the hides, I noticed that a nearby ditch was choked with frogspawn, which brought back happy memories of messing about in ponds and coming home muddy with a jar of frogspawn (and that was just last week!). Seriously though, tadpole time was one of the highlights of our country childhood. Unfortunately for the frogspawn in the shallow ditch, much of which was sticking out of the water, the next morning was very frosty and so some of it may have been killed off. Hopefully enough will survive to produce a good tadpole crop.
Once installed in the hide with binocular and telescope at the ready, I spent a good amount of time just scanning the reeds, water, islets and muddy edges. There was a huge number and variety of birds and the closer I looked the more I saw. Most obvious in the bright sunshine were the large whooper swans, so much a part of winter at Strathbeg. They were very vocal and there was much head nodding and neck dipping between them and a bit of rising up with half open wings. Early flirting I think!
There was so much activity; whoopers taking off and flying against the blue sky like a line of concordes; flocks of lapwings, flashing white in the sunshine as they tipped and tilted; geese coming and going in squadrons; ducks everywhere, with shelduck, mallards, scaup, teal and widgeon to name but a few; black headed gulls, their black hoods that have been absent over the winter returning again for the spring, still a bit mottled but getting there; roe deer feeding among the reeds, barely visible above the height of the bleached growth.
In the shallow water were pintails, surely one of the most elegant and well-turned out of the ducks.
There is also a relatively new addition to the environment of Strathbeg - Konik ponies, a rare and hardy breed, happy to browse coarse vegetation, that have been introduced to manage the habitat for the benefit of the birds. They do naturally what man would have to do by machine, they are less intrusive and are also attractive to look at. They seem totally at home walking around belly deep in the long reeds and course grasses and are, in my opinion, a welcome addition.
At one point, while I was in the Tower hide, a female hen harrier came into view, hunting along the reed beds. The harrier has a floating, undulating flight that is fantastic to watch as it skims just above the tops of the reeds, every so often stopping in a lazy hover to have a closer look. It was watching out for small birds hidden in the reedbeds and halfway along the edge of one pool, it suddenly tipped sideways, executing a sharp turn and dropping quickly into the reeds. It was over 15 minutes before it re-appeared, so it had obviously caught something. While I was waiting for it to emerge, and not wanting to watch too far away in case I missed it, I amused myself with a large group of starlings rising and falling in a synchronized flock as they fed along the edges of the field bordering the reeds. They were getting closer to where the harrier still remained in the reedbeds and as they turned and headed directly over its position I thought, “This will be interesting”. It was as though someone had taken a comb and parted the flock down the middle. They split in two, both groups veering off in different directions, obviously having spotted the harrier. Yet, a few minutes later, about ten geese coming it to land on the water flew over the harrier without any reaction whatsoever. May be something to do with which of the birds saw the harrier as a threat or maybe the geese were just not so alert.
After the harrier flew up from the reeds, it continued hunting, at one point scaring the heck out of three mallard ducks, which shot off at great speed. The harrier didn’t even look up at them. Once it reached the end of the stretch of reeds, it turned and let the strong wind take it fast, low and straight all the way back to the far end of the loch again where it turned back into wind and started hunting again. Once again it dropped into the reeds, but almost immediately re-appeared, However, it hunted around that area for a while always returning to approximately the same patch - I assumed that it had spotted something moving in the reeds. Minutes later after another swift dive, it disappeared and I did not see it again until much later when I saw it from another hide at the other end of the loch.
The icing on the cake for me, was the sight of a a stoat in partial ermine outside the information centre. It came bounding (in a manner that only stoat, with their long, lithe bodies can do) straight towards the centre and then shot down a hole, reappearing briefly to pose at the entrance to the hole, giving me a brief, but great view of its mottled brown head, beady, alert, black eyes , dark nose and little, neat ears, before shooting off again and into a drainpipe where apparently it spends a lot of time. It must be exhausting being a stoat, they seem to do everything at a million miles an hour. It was a perfect end to the day. If you think that winter is a dead time of year, pay a visit to Strathbeg - you cannot fail to have your mind changed.