Anyone who think Britain’s birds are a bit dull hasn’t seen many grebes! I’ve developed a fascination with these charismatic birds, so much so that a few months ago I had the whimsical idea of doing ‘a year in grebes’ – which finally came together some while after I’d given up on it.
It all started with the little grebe – a diminutive and busy bird which is often immensely watchable. Wanting to know more about them led me to purchase (second-hand) a sumptuously illustrated book, “Grebes of the world” – this is such a beautiful book that I felt it reflected something profound about human nature.
In the early part of the year, the rarest of Britain’s six grebe species arrived for a few weeks at Ham Wall in Somerset: it was a pied-billed grebe, an American bird which is occasionally blown over the Atlantic. I went down there on a perishingly cold day, in which the bird remained as far as it could from the viewing platform, while just about remaining in view. I include the image to prove that I saw it – but it has to be one of my worst bird pics!
In April a group of four black-necked grebes arrived in Tamworth at Dosthill Lake, in full breeding plumage – they are spectacularly impressive birds (full story here). At this point I had the whimsical idea of doing an article on ‘a year in grebes’: I would head up to Scotland to see the rare Slavonian grebes at one of their few British breeding sites, but was not sure how I would see a red-necked grebe as they are uncommon visitors. The first part of the plan didn’t materialise – not least because I ended up going on holiday with friends in Devon instead; but I rather regretted the demise of the ‘year in grebes’.
Last week, I noticed that there was a Slav grebe at Farmoor Reservoir in Oxfordshire. A couple had been there last year, but despite my best efforts I failed to see them, so I wasn’t that keen to fail again. But when I saw it was joined by a red-necked grebe, I realised that my whimsical plan was becoming a possibility again, so went on Friday. They would both be in winter plumage – much dowdier than in summer – but that wasn’t going to put me off.
I mentioned my quest to a local birder who was arriving at Farmoor at the same time as me, but left him to wander round as I photographed some little grebes. A few minutes later he was waving at me to point out the Slav grebe – and this time it was showing well at the side of the reservoir, unperturbed as I rattled off some photos.
The red-necked grebe proved harder to spot. My new friend saw it close by, but by the time I arrived it had disappeared. We chased it round to the north side of the reservoir, only to discover that it had actually slipped off to the south side instead. By the time I caught up with it, the sky had clouded over and it began to rain – as it would continue to do for the next several hours. So the light was poor – but I was close enough to have no doubts as to what species it was! It was actively fishing while we watched.
This completed the set of six British grebes within the year. The one that I haven’t mentioned is the most well-known, and possibly also the most spectacular: the great-crested. Here’s a shot from Upton Warren in March.
I haven’t yet seen a weed dance, though, an astonishing and beautiful courtship ritual for which great crested grebes are famous. For a brilliant shot by a birding friend, Cliff from the Fylde coast, earlier this year, click here.
My somewhat whimsical quest has spurred me into a desire to learn more about the nature of grebes themselves, particularly their evolutionary context and conservation status. From ‘Grebes of the world’ I learned that there are 22 grebe species globally, and that they probably originated in South America (because that’s where there are the most species today). The fossil record goes back 80 million years – meaning that for at least 15 million years the grebes lived with the dinosaurs.
None of the British grebe species are internationally threatened, although three of them are amongst the rarest of the UK’s breeding birds (with only a few dozen pairs of the Slavonian and black-necked, and just the occasional red-necked pair). However, three of the south American grebe species are under severe threat. The critically endangered Hooded Grebe is a major focus of effort for Aves Argentinas, and the subject of a BirdLife appeal: its numbers have dropped spectacularly in recent years, both because of the local kelp gulls and because of the invasive American mink and rainbow trout. The population of the endangered Titicaca flightless grebe has crashed where local fishermen have set gill nets in shallows near where they breed.
Chasing after grebe species has been fun – but it has made me more aware of global conservation issues, and the responsibility western enthusiasts have for contributing to their survival.