The loch is full of birds; multitudes of them; wheeling, diving, scattering, settling. They’re here for the whitebait which are filling the head of the loch this autumn. I don’t know why this autumn and not others but it’s high tide just now and the bay is brimful.
They’re mainly gulls: herring gulls, black-backed gulls, black-headed gulls (in their unhooded winter plumage), common gulls and kittiwakes – gulls of all ages and sizes. A good number of cormorants and shags are here too, snaking in among them. A few razorbills and guillemots hang around at the edges of the melée, and the occasional resident heron stands watch on the shore. The seals are getting in on the action too, poking their noses up here and there and sliding smoothly in and out of the mouth of the River Inver. A gannet wings its way in from the river mouth heading seaward.
The scene is ever-changing. For long spells, the birds sit around calmly, their pale bodies studding the loch’s dark grey surface in a distributed array which at times spans almost the width of the harbour. Then, when the shoals come in, they fly up and swoop down, crowding the water densely, the larger gulls especially, in a great mass of mottled wings. A colony is the usual collective noun for gulls but there’s no systematic colonising here. This is a clamouring of gulls, a noisy mass rising and falling, flocking and dispersing, floating and flyting, and feeding, feeding, feeding. Some of the gulls pluck the sprats from the surface of the water but most dive right in, the kittiwakes plunging with a noisy plop while the cormorants and shags slip neatly beneath with an elegant arching dive.
It’s quite a commotion and one I’ve never seen before, despite living on the loch itself for several years (aboard a boat in the harbour). When I ask around, however, I discover I’m not the only one. No-one’s seen this many birds on the loch for decades and we’re all captivated. Every time I’m in the village, I see someone standing by the shore, gazing out, transfixed: locals, tourists, delivery men, we’re all under the spell. I’m told social media is all a-flutter too, with photos and videos, sightings and observations. For me, it’s not just the sight but the sound which is compelling. When the feeding frenzy starts, the racket is immense: raucous, glaucous; an ear-rattling krilling and clacking, flapping and splashing. As it subsides, the cacophony simplifies, spreading out into distinct calls and cackles which punctuate the air, clarifying its dimensions.
I love watching all the birds, singly and in quantity, but it’s the kittiwakes which fascinate me the most. They congregate at the mouth of the River Inver, drifting about daintily then suddenly dropping into the water and emerging with a slim silver quickly-swallowed fish. They’re the most beautiful of gulls, to my eyes, and it’s a rare privilege to see them in flight so close to shore. The last time I saw kittiwakes was a few years ago when sailing with my partner off the coast of Norway. It was a cool evening in early June and we’d been out in a lumpy sea all day. I was cold and queasy and was lying around listlessly in the cockpit when four small white birds appeared around the top of the mast. They stayed with the boat for about quarter of an hour (though it felt like longer), beating up into the wind then gliding down our lee side, then holding steady, almost hovering, beside us. I didn’t recognise them then – the dark beak and eye, the black trim on the tail and the dark V on the upper side of each wing – but in my sea-weary state, they seemed like a visitation, the maritime equivalent of being called on by doves.
It was only later, on consulting my bird book, that I realised they were young kittiwakes. There are many of these here too, as well as the adults with their black ink-dipped wingtips, and all with that beguiling dark eye. In among all these kittiwakes though is another gull, dark-eyed too yet more petite and self-possessed – almost demure. I follow it with my binoculars for a while. Like the kittiwakes, it has a white head and body, pale grey wings, and a pure white fanned tail. However, its wings are more rounded and flappy, reminding me a little of a peewit, and underneath are a dark tapering grey. This dark underwing is unusually beautiful, particularly as the wings are bordered in white, making the bird appear translucent at its edges, as if it’s not fully of this world. Indeed, in the graceful lift of its flight, it seems almost holy.
There’s certainly something profoundly appealing about it. Yet it’s not just the kittiwakes and this little gull which are precious, it’s all the birds, the whole assemblage of them, and the way they have come to us now, unbidden. To me, returning from a difficult time away, they’re a welcome surprise, yet as I listen to people speak about them it seems that we all feel the same way: that this coming of the birds is a blessing, a benediction. After everything we’ve been through, with lockdowns and illness, extortionate inflation and a damp squib of a summer, we find ourselves surrounded by these clouds of white feathers, drifting and banking and at times filling the sky; as if – for a moment – we’re living inside a lightly shaken snow globe.
29th November 2022
Loch Inver, Assynt, Scotland