A Life of Crime

Mull has a larger-than-average quota of celebrity species. Indeed, there are days when I can scarcely keep up with all the A-List eagle action. Nevertheless, my top wildlife moments have come from more mundane quarters this week.

Around our shores, herons are very much like streetlights: they’re tall, grey and stationed reliably every fifty meters. I’m the first to admit that my heart doesn’t do exactly somersaults when I see them. However, herons have revealed a side previously unknown to me – a side that is darkly criminal, calculating and [interestingly] buoyant.

I’ve been spending most of my outdoor time at the hide. Hot tea, biscuits and a stove are just part of its great appeal during Mull’s monsoon season. These afternoons had been uneventful [save for a hunting peregrine] until the otter showed up.

She was working the weedy margins of Loch Mingary with a single cub; old enough to dive, but still quite small. I hadn’t knowingly seen this otter before. Our regular girl has a large scar, so is easily identifiable.

The newcomer seemed wary – I was worried that she might catch my scent as she swam towards the hide. She passed without incident, but shortly afterwards a heron flopped down onto the rocks beside her. The cub slipped away, but the female kept hold of her butterfish and remained where she was. Her back arched aggressively, and I could hear her whickering at the heron.

The bird tilted its head, bent forward and took another step. Its expression was comparable to that of a Velociraptor: the kind one wears before it jumps Bob Peck.

Like lightening, it lunged forward just as the otter opened her mouth. She missed a nose piercing by bare millimetres, and there was an audible click as her teeth clattered against the bony beak.

The heron shambled off with its prize like a broken umbrella; the defeated otter sank miserably into the bladder wrack.

Days later, I returned. There was a good fishing tide: shags, cormorants, divers and mergansers were all busy hunting the loch. The herons, of course, waited patiently along the shore. One in particular was paying close attention.

Eventually, a cormorant surfaced with a mullet. The fish was side-on and lively, so the bird didn’t notice the heron take off – I assumed it was simply heading to a new spot.

Instead, the heron bombed into the water astride the cormorant and wrestled it for the fish. For the briefest of moments, a surprised and horrified head peered out of the pirate’s breast feathers, before disappearing.

Swimming is not a big part of the heron skill-set. It jerked about like a mutant swan, right in the middle of the loch. The mullet slapped it crisply in the face and returned forthwith to the wild. Fishless and adrift, the heron finally went airborne with the combined strength of front-crawl and willpower. Who knows what sinister deeds it might be contemplating next?

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

Defeated: the female Otter swims off to search for more food… 

Otter [swimming]