Thursday 11 July 2019

Shetland Interlude - Red throated Divers

Red throated Divers are relatively scarce as a breeding bird in Britain. An estimate in 1994 put the number of breeding pairs at 934 with more than half of these in Shetland. It is very much a bird of the northern parts of Scotland when breeding but in winter it is far more widespread, wintering in numbers around the entire British coast.

Red throated Divers breeding in Shetland can be found on small lochs, often in isolated areas and far from habitation but sometimes they choose to breed on similar lochs close to less busy public roads, not that any road in Shetland is busy by Oxfordshire standards.

I found my first breeding 'red throat' from such a road not far from  our hotel. Parking in a designated layby off the road, from which it was possible to scan over an adjacent loch, I watched a diver floating on the quiet waters. Red throated Divers, as with the other three diver species to be found in Britain, are supremely adapted to a life spent entirely on or under water. The only exception to this being when they lay their eggs each year and are obliged to incubate them in a rudimenrtary hollow on dry land but usually within inches of the water's edge. Their structure is one designed for an exclusive aquatic existence with a smooth, rounded, almost reptilean head and sinuous neck and a long body that sits low in the water, with legs and feet, to propel them, situated almost at the end of their body . Due to the extreme position of their legs and feet they cannot walk any distance on land and can only manage an upright shuffle for a few feet before collapsing. In their natural element it is a different story and they are completely at ease.

At this time of year Red throated Divers are in immaculate summer dress. Their plumage is admittedly duller than the neatly contrasting black and white of the similar sized but rarer Black throated Diver but none the less striking in its perfection. The head and sides of the neck are a beautifully smooth dove grey. The crown has dark stipples which develop on the hind crown into delicate black and white vertical stripes that run down the back of its neck and spread out around the base of the neck onto the sides of the breast. The throat is covered in a squarish blood red patch which extends down to the white breast.The rest of the body is greyish brown on the upperparts and white on the underparts.The eyes are also remarkable in being a ruby red colour, small and almost glowing in the grey head.

However the most remarkable aspect about Red throated Divers is not so much the plumage but more their dagger thin bill which has a definite retrousse appearance. The upper mandible is only slightly inclined at an upward angle but the lower one tapers markedly towards the tip giving a definite upturned effect. I have seen this quite distinct feature on sea watches as they pass well out to sea. It really is that noticeable.

This particular diver was persistently calling, a mournful wail repeated at regular intervals but I could see no sign of a mate although there may have been one hidden and incubating eggs in the vegetation right by the water's edge where they invariably make their rudimentary nest.

Red throated Divers used to go under the name of rain goose in Shetland and it is thought the name represented its mythological status that was prevalent in many of the far northern parts of the globe. Its weird unworldly cries and enigmatic existence made it a revered creature amongst ancient tribes, forming a prominent part in their stories of creation and being regarded as a winged helper in the shaman's journey to the spirit world. The bird's supposed power to foretell the approach of storms formed another part of its ancient mythological status as a bird of ill omen.

A chance conversation in our hotel, the next morning, with a bird guide who was taking a break from leading a group put me onto another site where there was a Red throated Diver with a well grown juvenile. I was given precise directions and made the journey later that morning. The divers were to be found on a very small lochan right beside a quiet side road and handily there was an adjacent passing place from which I could observe the diver family without getting out of the car and disturbing them which would be illegal.

Red throated Divers are what is called a Schedule One species which means it is an offence to disturb them at their breeding site without a special permit. It is acceptable to watch them from public places such as roads and laybys but not to wander over moors in search of them during the breeding season. Even in public places it is preferable to remain concealed in a car or keep your distance to avoid any undue disturbance to the birds.

Such a situation occurred at another well known tourist spot we visited, Eshaness, where the public road leading to the spectacular cliffs and lighthouse was used by cyclists, walkers and cars, all passing relatively close by two small lochs, both of which were occupied by breeding Red throated Divers. 

Watching from the car I could see on one of the lochs, on the side furthest from the road, a diver incubating eggs in a nest right by the water's edge. This was another first for me. 

Of necessity the nest is always placed right at the water's edge as the diver's adaptation to a totally aquatic existence means it cannot really walk on land.

Back at the original loch with the diver and its offspring, I sat in the car with the window open and watched and took photographs as they sat on the water. The adult was sleeping, closing one of its eyes and floating aimlessly near to the bank. It was however still watchful, rotating slowly on the water so it could cover all sides of the lochan with its other open eye. The young diver did not stray far from its parent and was covered in a chocolate brown fluff with no sign of proper feathers but nevertheless looked to be a few weeks old at least. 

Neither seemed intent on feeding but just moved idly on the still dark waters of the shallow loch, never straying far from the bank.

It was a picture of quiet contentment and for me a great pleasure to see a Red throated Diver in its full breeding plumage as normally I only see them in winter, when their plumage is very different, being just grey and white as they swim on or fly over the sea which is where they go once they have finished breeding.

The sun, forever capricious on Shetland, disappeared after a brief interlude and a wind arose to disturb the calm of the loch turning the water into a thousand wavelets mirroring the greying sky.The  juvenile diver huddled close to its parent and slept while she kept watch. 

I had spent a good hour watching them, reluctant to leave as it is so infrequently that I have the opportunity to see an adult Red throated Diver in summer plumage and this was the first time ever that I have seen a live youngster. The change in the weather brought on a change in my mood, the spell was broken and so a pleasant but all too brief time spent in the company of another one of Shetland's special birds came to its conclusion.

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