The red-throated diver is an elusive highland treasure, especially in breeding season when its pining call haunts the hills and lochs, along with its cousin the black-throated diver, Gavia arctica. Their sleek profiles, and submersible fishing abilities, are serendipitous moments of any day hill-walking or fishing the highland lochs. It's usually silhouetted against a low silvery water, but if you catch the sun on it, you may see the red throat and blood-blister eye. The young are dull and take on the colour of the peaty waters, so can be hard to spot. They nest on secluded highland lochans and, like the roaming fisherman, their quarry is the common brown trout. There are around 1,300 pairs in Britain, confined to the northern isles and the west coast of Scotland, with smaller populations in north-west Ireland. In Donegal they were once called 'Mooney's Duck', and whilst we don't know who Mooney was, he obviously thought they sounded like a duck. Indeed, its regular mallard-like quack is very much like a duck, but has a little more of a rattle and threat to it, and its sabre-shaped bill gives it a martial appearance, especially in full summer plumage, with its burgundy cravat and black and white neck-striping.
I move on from the lochan I'm fishing and head downhill to a low, hidden defile in the Ullapool hills, pooled with yet another dark lochan. Two brown silhouettes on the water crouch like hunting cats when they see me, paddling up the far side of the loch in a slow a profile as they can muster. I put the rod down and hunker into a rock outcrop to hide myself, get the binoculars out of the sack. Just as I do so, a jet-like whoosh brushes my head and announces the arrival of the adult. She must have been in the clouds and wheeling, no doubt saw me, thinking a quick buzz over the rock outcrop might do the trick. I'm suitably admonished and back off to a distance with the binoculars. The adult bird circles and then clatters into the water. It is carrying clamped in its bill, a substantial half-pound brown trout, viced around the gills. One of the youngsters noses low towards her in a paddling sprint and is first to receive its bounty, gobbling down the free lunch. I am kind of glad I haven't caught anything today, happy to sacrifice any trout for the greater good of the red-throated diver.
Red-throated divers on Loch Bad a Ghaill, 2019