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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Cal Flyn

Country diary: A fine time to admire fancy wildfowl

An eider (Somateria mollissima) drake on the sea. Moray Firth, Scotland. March.HN63WD Eider (Somateria mollissima) drake on sea. Moray Firth, Scotland. March.
An eider (Somateria mollissima) drake on the sea. Photograph: Chris Gomersall/Alamy

In winter it can be hard to remember that the conditions we consider to be cold are, for some, perfectly normal – balmy even. Indeed, as the storms drew in and Orkney battened down the hatches for a rare island blizzard, I was surprised to see the sheltered waters of Stromness harbour crowded with seabirds going about their business, with barely a nod to the subzero weather.

Long-tailed Duck / Oldsquaw Clangula hyemalis, Shetland, Scotland, UKCWYAT5 Long-tailed Duck / Oldsquaw Clangula hyemalis, Shetland, Scotland, UK
Long-tailed ducks in flight. Photograph: Hugh Harrop/Alamy

There were the usual eider ducks, which are here year-round, though I shall never be numbed to their beauty: the males’ sleek monochromatic stylings and the females’ tasteful brindle; their striking facial profile – more jolie laide than pretty. This time of year, the females are often accompanied by their adolescent offspring, now fully grown but ambiguously plumaged, their pale ruffled patches flecked with black as if speckled with oil. Among them, some red-breasted mergansers – their quiffs lending a raffish, devil-may-care look – stop by to play a cameo role.

In fact, all sorts of fancy wildfowl have flocked to our coastal waters over the past few weeks, fleeing the climatic extremes of further north. Trudging through sand dunes only a few days ago, I met with a group of around two dozen long-tailed ducks, paddling in the shallows. These glamorous holidaymakers caught my attention immediately: the males in their Venetian masks of taupe and black, over eerie chestnut eyes; the females with their tawny shoulders, black capes and powdered white faces.

View of Stromness harbour from the arriving ferry – Stromness, Mainland Orkney, Scotland, UK2HPMDTH View of Stromness harbour from the arriving ferry – Stromness, Mainland Orkney, Scotland, UK
Stromness harbour. Photograph: Angus McComiskey/Alamy

To these birds, which will spend the summer in their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra, Orkney is a clement spot to retire to in winter – relatively sunlit and blessed by temperate waters. Inspired by the ducks’ cold water serenity, I shed my own layers and dashed into the water. Normally the shock on entrance would make me gasp, but today the sea felt comparatively welcoming, the air temperature having dropped below freezing, but the seawater lagging behind, around 8C.

I swam out beyond the old stone piers as the long-tailed ducks paddled around me: bemused but not alarmed, busy with their own agendas. As the streets turned to slush and the schools closed for snow, it felt good to see my homeplace from a visitors’ perspective. It could always be colder.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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