Wind-whipped waves and rafts of bobbing ducks partially obscured by intermittent pulses of autumnal rain sweeping across the steely-grey waters of Loch Leven.
Despite the wet and windy weather, it was wonderful to be down by this magnificent Kinross-shire loch, with the abundance of waterfowl lifting my spirits and making my heart sing and dance with joy. This is a place of wide horizons and open skies; a loch which brims with life at every turn, and which is important internationally as a safe winter haven for whooper swans, geese, and other birds.
I focused my binoculars on a group of tufted ducks, the wind-swept tufty streamers on the backs of their heads looking like punk-style haircuts. Every so often, the ducks roll-dived under the water in search of molluscs and other invertebrates.
There were also a few pochards in among the tufties. Pochards are attractive ducks, with the drake bird sporting a chestnut-red head, black breast, and a lavender-grey body. Sadly, pochards are on the decline in Scotland, possibly because of the increased nutrification of lochs caused by run-off from land. It might also be down to milder conditions in continental Europe resulting in fewer birds arriving here to spend the winter.
Whatever the reason, it is sad these ducks are falling in numbers. Only a small number breed in Scotland each year, despite the conditions on many lochs looking perfect for them. It all goes to show that nature is highly complex, with the slightest change or flux having serious knock-on effects.
I wandered on, spotting mallards and mute swans. Soon, I reached a small section of the track that follows the course of the River Leven, before it veers back towards the loch once more over a footbridge. By the river, a heron stood patiently on the far-bank, scrutinising the water for the slightest tell-tale movement of a trout or eel.
Herons are typically shy birds, but this one was quite tame, probably because it had become used to numerous walkers passing nearby.
A few hundred yards further on, I ventured into a wooden bird hide that overlooked several shallow pools clustered by the loch’s edge. On the furthest pool, a small group of teal had gathered. Teal are among my favourite ducks, so full of the zest of life. Their presence reminded me of regular sojourns in winter at dusk down to the flood meadow or haugh of my local river to watch them feeding in the natural ponds and oxbow lakes.
As darkness descends, these wonderful little ducks can be heard whistling to each other in the night air, a soft and flute-like call, a mere whispering in the wind. It is the essence of winter on the haugh, the call so gentle and hypnotic, it is the very music of nature itself.
Loch Leven is important all year round for wildlife, with it being home to nesting waterfowl and waders in spring and summer, and hosting huge influxes of ducks, geese and swans in autumn and winter.