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Ballet with a bird of prey, whispers on the reed beds: Tay’s hidden sights and sounds rediscovered

© Shutterstock / Menno SchaeferMarsh Harrier in flight
Marsh Harrier in flight

The pale honey-toned reed beds of the north shore of the Firth of Tay fashion their own microworld – a perpetually restless land and waterscape of whispers and sudden hisses.

The 10-mile-long reed beds have a pervasive scent – it’s a fusion of brackish water, new growth and old mud. The result is an acquired taste and not everyone can acquire it.

There are those who find the place unchancy, uneasy, even intimidating and dismissive – nature tending towards the dark side. The RSPB has cut and surfaced a four-mile walking loop from Errol but, beyond that, the reed beds offer up one of the most introverting of landscapes, closing out sight and sound of the rest of the world so that every noticing sense is diverted inwards, directed to the closest of close quarters.

Even on the stillest of windless days – and there are few enough of these in the firth – the tide still heaves gently at the roots of the outermost reeds.

That is always all it takes to feed the appetite for gossip of reed beds like these, gossip that wildfires its way from the water’s edge to the hidden depths of the reeds. All it takes is to set them swaying and rubbing, stem against stem, frond against frond, and so the whispers travel the entire length of the reed bed, mile after mile of it, and back again, endlessly.

Sometimes a single current of air set up by a passing boat or a skein of geese can mould an airstream that riffles through the fronds like a salmon bursting open at the midstream, and so the whispering reeds resume.

With the rest of the world so effectively silenced, you could swear they were talking about you behind your back and, for that matter, in front of your face.

The place delights me. Why? It’s primitive and self-sustaining. It is its own world, neither wholly land nor wholly water, and as much air as either of these, an ecosystem built on a phenomenal simplicity with its own wildlife community.

It is a living, breathing, whispering, crawling, diving, soaring miracle.

Allowing for the obvious differences of scale, the vocabulary of reed and water and wind in constant interaction ranges widely through different states of the tide, directions and speed of the wind, and seasons of the year. It takes a while to tune in.

There is a gentler way in. The higher reaches of the road between Newburgh and Balmerino on the south shore unveil the full extent of the north shore reed beds – a wide-angle swathe of river, Carse, Sidlaws and sky, in which the meeting of river and bank is braided by a sunlit ribbon of an almost indefinable shade, except you are certain you have seen it before in a jar of honey.

At once, you have a handle on the sheer extent of the Tay’s reed beds, and why they matter.

They may lack the panache of the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates, but these are the most extensive in Britain by some margin. And, once you have taken it all in and let it impress itself on your mind’s eye, here’s a suggestion – look down.

The south shore has reed beds too. They are, admittedly, small and scattered but you still get the sense of them, especially with a pair of decent binoculars.

Crucially, for what is about to follow, you can often look down on them, and if you are patient enough and lucky enough, something new will suddenly catch your eye. Your first response might be that equally suddenly, there are two shades of honey at work – the pale and the dark. True, you need sunlight to make the honey analogy come alive, but these are among Scotland’s sunniest shores – and come alive it does.

That something new is a female marsh harrier, a reed bed specialist – and, for that reason, the Firth of Tay has become a stronghold in the last two or three decades. And suddenly – because you have found a seat with a view and you have been still and quiet for an hour, filling your eyes and ears with the sights and sounds of Scotland’s finest river in the final throes of its march to the sea at Tentsmuir Point – because of all that, events have conspired to put you in the right place at the right time.

The marsh harrier is about to put on a show. The first thing you will notice is that it unfolds in slow motion. The second thing is the balletic poise. The third is the economy of movement. The wings are buzzard-sized but seem wide and more fluent in their movements, and they are often held up-tilted in a V-shape.

She is hunting, the wing-beats are shallow and easy, rarely going below the horizontal. She travels across the reed bed from east to west, sometimes just a few inches above the tips of the reeds, sometimes as high as 10ft above them.

She can do this – stop. Just like that, wings raised and held still, and she hangs there for two or three seconds then moves on.

What just happened? You want to stop the film, press rewind and see it again – as if your eyes need to be convinced by technology. Just watch and watch and watch, and sooner or later, while she’s in this hunting mode, she’ll do it again.

When she does, you will be ready, and this time you’ll see how she transitions from that sudden absence of motion and urges herself forward again.

The trick of it is simply beautiful and, no matter how often you see it, you will struggle to put it into words. It won’t matter. It’s the watching that matters. Then she rises steeply and whips round, and you know at once that you have never seen a bird that size turn so tightly.

She does it by standing on one wing tip, the right one for a sunwise turn, the left if she goes widdershins. Either way, one wing tip is vertically above the other as she turns. The manoeuvre is so accomplished that by the time you have taken on board what she just did, she has covered another 20ft of reed bed but now she travels from west to east.

Did she see something that made her turn? You’ll never know. She flies on eastwards until she is hidden behind trees at the bottom of the next field.

Your choice now is to find a way down to see if you get a closer view, or you can sit still. Sooner or later, she will be back and you are in the right place for when she does.

Meanwhile, you can see the Mugdrum from here, the little flat midstream island. There are shelducks there, seals, some duck that could be gadwall. And something is havering among the reeds, something small and all but invisible yet managing to amplify its babbling chatter to a level far above its pay grade. A sedge warbler.

You are casting around with binoculars, more in hope than expectation of finding the tiny source of the big sound when you suddenly realise – she’s back, the harrier, right out on the edge of the reed bed, heading towards the island, perhaps to the reed beds of the far shore.

Watch her fly, that relentless, shallow flight pattern. When she leaves the Tay around the end of August, we know from wing tags and tiny transmitters that she’ll head for the Gambia, Senegal maybe. But, given a fair wind, she’ll be back.