FROM my vantage point at Gartmorn Dam, a careful scan with binoculars revealed just a handful of mallards and mute swans.

The loch was otherwise quiet, and I exhaled a sigh of disappointment.

The dearth of ducks was most probably due to the fact it was still early in the season and the main influx of winter visitors had yet to arrive.

I quickly reprimanded myself for this momentary feeling of chagrin, for to dismiss the mallards and swans in such cavalier fashion was unforgivable.

To assuage my guilt, I brought a drake mallard into focus and was immediately taken by his brilliant green head and chestnut breast, which glowed under the soft autumnal light.

I watched the mallards for a while longer, before taking a circuit around the loch.

A lone great crested grebe fishing out in the water caught my eye.

It was in its pale, rather drab winter plumage, and it was hard to imagine that come the spring, this bird would transform into a dazzling beauty, with sparkling and flashy 'ear tufts'.

Great crested grebes have a spectacular courtship display where there is much head shaking and rearing up to each other breast to breast.

I particularly like the image conjured by the early 20th century ornithologist Thomas Coward of such behaviour, which he described as being like 'an upright caress'.

It is a good description of the courtship, which is an endearing reaffirmation of the strength of the pair bond.

By the car park, a large gathering of black-headed gulls had congregated, crying excitedly to each other.

Like the great crested grebe, they too were in their winter garb, and won't regain their chocolate brown heads until the breeding season.

These dainty gulls are on the decline, which is a shame, for they are such elegant birds, and in summer will often hawk over water for mayflies, swooping and swerving like giant swallows.

Beyond the gulls, a pair of female goosanders glided across the water, repeatedly ducking their heads under the surface to scan for fish.

It was like an avian version of snorkelling and is a highly effective technique for searching out their underwater prey without wasting energy by diving under