Our canoe cuts across the loch, the paddles dipping through water dark as ink, the bow pointing south towards a cloud-heavy sky, smearing rain on to the distant hills. The most obvious wildlife today are the people: winging overhead in a glider, tacking by in sailboats, steering kayaks and teetering on stand-up paddle boards. A year ago, all was still here but for a lone white-haired man rowing daily for his permitted exercise.
At the far end, two different tribes of swans patrol their separate waters. The whoopers, who will be heading north soon, sound their strident bark. On cue, a pair of mutes break the silence by taking off with a furious beating of wings, ploughing the surface of the water for 50 metres before lifting free and circling in a great arc. Their flight makes a throbbing metallic sound, till that marriage of brute strength and angelic beauty descends into slapstick as they come in for a crash landing.
Leaving swan lake, we slip into the mouth of the Spey, paddling easily upstream as the river here is slow and meandering. It winds across Insh Marshes, a flood plain once drained for farmland but now a restoring haven for animal and plant life, both common and rare. The banks are lined with willows, in the flush of new green, while the gnarly alders still lie in wait.
A series of repeated notes bubbles up from the rushes into the musical cry of a hidden curlew. Oystercatchers pass overhead with urgent peeping, while in front of us, a pair of goldeneye launch in a fluster, their wings whistling. Not to be outdone, a party of Canada geese head in the opposite direction with noisy honking. Martins speed around us like pinballs, black-headed gulls stream across the higher skies, and a grey heron rises from the grass in stately, flappy flight.
We pull up at a bank and stretch out on the grass, admiring the cloud patterns in the clearing sky, and breathing the honey scent of a bird cherry in full bloom. Around our wellies, bees are gracing the meadow flowers and, in a tree nearby, the faithful chaffinch reprises its lovely, descending song. Somewhere, an old man rows into the evening.
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