Another magic moment in Arran’s bird life

Great northern diver calling. Photo Ewan Urquhart

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Bird Notes by Jim Cassels

One Sunday morning in May, walking on the shore by the Kinloch Hotel, the rain had stopped, the sea was flat calm and the bay was full of the haunting, evocative, eerie calls of courting great northern diver.

There was a pair in the bay comfortable in each other’s company, heading north to their breeding grounds. Another magic moment with Arran’s bird life.

In 2021 great northern diver were seen round Arran’s coast in every month of the year.

Their breeding grounds are further to the north from Alaska, northern United States, Canada, southern parts of Greenland, Iceland through to parts of northern Norway.

The great northern diver is the largest of the three divers seen in Arran’s coastal waters with heavier features including a large dagger like bill.

In breeding plumage, it has an all-black head, white-chequered upper parts and white-striped patch on neck.

In non-breeding plumage one distinguishing feature is the half collar on the lower side of the neck emphasised by the white indentation above it. At times the head can be angular shaped with a bump on the forehead

The great northern diver is an expert fisher, catching its prey underwater by diving as deep as 60m.

With its large, webbed feet, it is an efficient underwater pursuit predator and adroit diver.

It needs a long run-up distance to gain momentum for flight take-off, and is ungainly on land, sliding on its belly and pushing itself forward with its legs.

Its clumsiness on land is due to the legs being positioned at the rear of its body; the pelvic muscles are well developed, ideal for swimming but not well-suited for walking.

When it lands on water, it skims along on its belly to slow down, rather than braking with its feet, as they are set too far back.

The great northern diver swims and dives well, and flies competently for hundreds of kilometres in migration.

It flies with its neck outstretched with a flying speed as much as 120 km/h during migration.

Finally, some of you may recall the 1981 film On Golden Pond starring Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda among others.

A simple film about family relationships and facing one’s mortality.

To me the real stars were the birds – what the Americans call common loons, and we call great northern divers – calling on their breeding pond.

To get a flavour of their wailing call try this You Tube link, loon wailing (Pair)

Enjoy your birding and keep safe.

Please send any bird notes with ‘what, when, where’ to me at Kilpatrick Kennels, Kilpatrick, Blackwaterfoot, KA27 8EY, or e mail me at I look forward to hearing from you. For more information on birding on Arran purchase the Arran Bird Report 2021 and the Arran Bird Report, the first 40 years. Plus visit the website