Chestnut flanks and neck. Ruby-red eyes. Dagger-like bill. And, on either side of its matt-black head, golden plumes shimmering in the Speyside sunshine. All wrapped up in a buoyant waterbird, gliding across the silky-smooth surface of the loch, before disappearing beneath, then yo-yoing into view again, with a tiny fish as its prize.
The Slavonian grebe’s splendour is enhanced by its rarity: there are fewer than 30 breeding pairs in Britain, spread out across the Scottish Highlands. Being relatively unknown, it might not win a competition for Britain’s most beautiful bird. But it would certainly give any other contenders a run for their money.
As the grebe came closer, I saw tiny details I hadn’t noticed before: a narrow line of pink running from the eye down to the base of the bill, and, each time it surfaced, tiny droplets of water falling off the feathers like mercury.
In autumn and winter, Slavonians shed their splendid breeding garb and switch to monochrome, looking more like a guillemot than a grebe. I have watched them off the coasts of southern England, bobbing along in salt rather than fresh water, before they return to Scotland to breed.
But now, as spring was finally breaking north of the border, these birds were looking their very best: dressed up for the breeding season, the most crucial time of their lives.