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JIM CRUMLEY: Loch Leven meets my need for white birds and quiet days

A whooper swan in flight - a highlight of Jim's day at Loch Leven. Photo: Shutterstock.
A whooper swan in flight - a highlight of Jim's day at Loch Leven. Photo: Shutterstock.

Sometimes you need a quiet day.

Sometimes the baffling waffle of Boris, Jacob and his other chums, the (alleged) indiscretions of the Duke of York, Novak’s travails in Oz and the never-ending saga of Omicron is all just too loud and in your face and you need a quiet day.

So I headed for Loch Leven.

The day was cool and grey. And I thought that if I talked to swans for a while or hung out with curlews, perhaps they would impart perspective, tranquility, wisdom.

A nature writer feeds off such things.

The RSPB’s Vane Farm reserve hides look out over wetland lagoons and some rough grazing terrain.

Mallards, teal, wigeon, goosander,  a pair of mute swans …all subdued and more or less silent, as if the day’s greyness and mounting cold held them in some kind of thrall.

One more winter’s day to get through.

Then the little egrets.

These brilliant white incomers with heron necks and stilts, yet with a capacity in flight to effect impressive barn owl impersonations, are slowly edging north.

Loch Leven has a reliable presence of two, and the duller the day the deeper they appear to glow.

It is a curiosity, my character note, but it strikes me again and again how much I like to see white in the landscape and how rare it is.

Snow (rare and getting rarer), waterfalls, a bank of snowdrops, swans of course, winter ptarmigan and winter stoats…waterfalls apart, these are fleeting presences.

In search of perfection in the pages of a book

There is a book I have cherished for more than 30 years, The White Egret, an exquisite photographic study of white egrets in Japan by Shingi Itoh.

Time without number, I have picked it up when I feel fed up or ill-at-ease or dissatisfied with something I’ve written, and I have felt my mood lighten, my perspective readjust to an even keel in its reflected aura.

Sometimes when I’m out alone and the raw beauty of nature’s company takes over from my day’s original purpose, I think about the elusiveness of what I aspire to as a writer, and I’m troubled by the arrogance of a process that seeks to incarcerate that beauty within the covers of a book.

It doesn’t last long because then I think about Shingi Itoh and his book.

A little Egret. Not large in number at Loch Leven, but huge in appeal. Photo: Shutterstock.

In the brief preface to his photographic essay, he wrote:

“I have taken more than one hundred thousand photographs of egrets…the task of capturing the true beauty of the lustrous, snow-white egret on film has been completely beyond my capabilities, although I have continued to take pictures of them.

“As difficult as this task may be… I have felt a need to understand the egret’s movements and behaviour, their enduring existence, and to share what I have learned…”

One hundred thousand photographs! I go back to work.

We all need role models.

Shingi Itoh’s book reflects the white egret’s status in Japan where it is a recurring motif in painting, literature, haiku, song and place names, and it has won this disciple in Scotland simply because the work is so beautifully done.

Listening in on the swans of Loch Leven

Later in the day I walked the south shore of the loch to the big reed beds in the south-east corner, a more or less reliable haunt of wintering Icelandic whooper swans.

For these, and for the whole tribe of swans, I harbour a unique fascination for reasons I have never been able to pin down.

A whooper swan – a particular favourite of Jim’s. Photo: Shutterstock.

But it’s there, and I have followed the fortunes of swans from here to Alaska, Iceland and Norway, and sometimes I just seek them out when I need a quiet day.

A stealthy, off-piste, mushy squelch through a woodland edge to the lochside was rewarded with a close-quarters gathering of about 30 whoopers.

They are among the most conversational of swans and mutter to each other with muted brass voices, occasionally raising the volume to spread an alarm or resolve a dispute.

Beaks are vivid yellow and black, necks tend to be held straight and tails down as opposed to orangey-red, curved, and up with mute swans.

They are warier too, the perpetual condition of the wintering migrant.

Whoopers shatter the quiet – but what a spectacle

Some of my most contented hours in nature’s company are spent like this.

An hour drifted by, an hour that grew progressively colder and windier.

A north-westerly wind on Loch Leven heads for this very corner, and there was no hiding place for a swan-watcher.

And then the best bit.

Swan voices overhead.

They flew low over the treetops from behind me, a skein of seven, circled low over the water and came in to land not 20 yards away.

Whooper swan greeting ceremonies are loud and lavish, raised heads and necks and threshing wings, open throats.

A couple of minutes of sublime chaos.

Then in an instant, order, calm, quiet, and a pervasive magic that the swan watcher on the shore will never ever get used to or take for granted.

Sometimes, all you need is a quiet day.

JIM CRUMLEY: How a humpback whale off the Fife coast brought a message for all of us