Grebe chicks, a grass snake and an obliging little egret

There have been some rapid changes on the Decoy Lake during May and early June – although in the middle of May, little of that was visible. The grebes were quite calm, not engaging in territorial bouts – and generally seen singly rather than in pairs. I suspected that they were probably taking turns sitting on eggs, but as the nests were hidden, I had no way to confirm this.

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Great crested grebe, looking elegant at the Decoy Hide

Meanwhile, there slithered into view a grass-snake, swimming from lily pad to lily pad, demonstrating why it’s also called a water snake.

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Grass snake on the lily pads outside the Decoy Lake.

A week later I went in the early morning and soon discovered that major changes in the lives of the grebes had taken place: the two pairs nearest the hides had both had chicks. Unfortunately the bright sun from the direction of the tor meant that photography was very difficult, and decided to head off to Ham Wall instead.

A few days later I went with my mother to the Decoy Hide. As we walked along the woodland path to the hide, a buzzard swooped along the path and perched on a branch.

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Buzzard at Shapwick Heath

On the lake, the grebe parents were entirely occupied in feeding their young.

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The grebe parents were very busy feeding their chicks.

This should have led to some great photo opportunities, but for another growing problem – the lily pads, which look pretty, have been spreading rapidly across the lake, and it has become increasingly obvious that the grebes have been avoiding the areas covered by them. As the lilies cover the area in front of the hide, the grebes have retreated to the middle of the lake, which is still lily-free. Still, the sight of chicks riding on their parents was very cute!

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The grebe family to the left of the hide

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Feeding time for the grebe chicks – one of many!

Other species were also quite active. This pied wagtail flitted by, briefly.

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Pied wagtail at the Decoy Lake

Seeing a Great White Egret float in was a lovely sight – although I was less enthusiastic when a grebe family, with their brood of chicks, swam close by – each of which would have been a tiny morsel for a hungry young egret. Fortunately the parents were alert enough to the danger to shepherd their young out of the way.

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Lovely to see a young great white egret on the lake – until the grebe family was in danger of wandering a bit too close

By early June, the grebe chicks were too big to piggyback their parents so easily. The family to the left of the hide hung together much more obviously than the family directly in front, and offered many more ‘happy grebe family’ photo opportunities!

“I’m the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal!”

Grebe family to the left of the hide

Hobby at Shapwick Heath

In mid-June Jen and I went to the Decoy Hide for a short visit. We were entertained by three hobbies, hawking for dragonflies over the lake – one of which sat in a tree long enough for me to get some photos – although it was much too far away for any good photography (and is notable only because it’s my first photo of a hobby!).

Although the grebe pair to the left of the hide seemed the most cohesive family,it was the one in front where the most fishing was being done for the chicks. (The comparison may well be unfaiir: it may simply be that the grebe families did things at different times of day, and my relfections tend to be based on early afternoons).

There were many fish-laden trips to the chick.

The chick was very alert to the availability of more fish!

They looked very harmonious swimming side by side…

…but it was hard to avoid the conclusion that feeding the chick was a demanding process!

One of the photographic highlights recently was a little egret that flew in and perched on a nearby tree stump.

Little egret on the Decoy Lake

Little egret in alert pose

Little egret picking food off the lake surface

 

Why bother nesting if you can keep winding up the oppo?

Rapid changes are taking place on the Decoy Lake on Shapwick Heath. Lily pads, hidden throughout winter, are appearing all over in readiness for their summer profusion. Swallows are frequently sweeping over the lake, scooping the abundant insects – whereas a fortnight ago, they were only just starting to appear from their migration.

Grebe in threat mode, heading for…

Meanwhile, every time I think I’ve sussed out the grebe territories, something happens to show how little I’ve understood. Towards the end of March, I thought there were two pairs, one near the hide to the right and one at the far end. Just before Easter I found that a new grebe had settled in to the left of the hide. Actually I’d thought there was a pair there but one of them (probably the male!) headed off to the far end, and as far as I could tell was consorting with another female. I wished – as I have many times – that I could tell them apart… are these two grebes ones that were around earlier in the year, or are they a new pair from elsewhere?

…another grebe, in threat mode. This one is from the hide pair.

I therefore often find myself resorting to counting the grebes – which you might think would be simple… except that they dive below the surface, lurk in reedbeds, turn up unexpectedly far outside their territories – and occasionally do completely unexpected things like flying…

While the ducks on the lake frequently fly around, dramatically splashing down onto the water, the grebes stay on (or under) the lake whenever possible – so much so that when one took off and flew I was really surprised! It flies elegantly – as it does everything else – and did so more strongly than I expected.

Last week’s grebe count was the highest yet. Now there appear to be four pairs. Admittedly I only saw six at one time – all heading for the central part of the lake in front and to the left of the hide, which provoked the predictable territorial shenanigans – but only four of them were paired up and the other two seemed to have partners at other times.

The hide pair give the impression of being the least flappable, but with a rather flexible interpretation of what constitutes the boundary to their territory. This provokes a reaction from whichever neighbour they were winding up, making it appear that the other grebes were the tetchy ones.

What’s striking about this lot is how far behind they are compared to the other sites in the area. At Easter on Ham Wall, the grebes were already well into the nesting phase. Recent posts from the Westhay reserve show that not only have they finished nesting, but they have chicks as well!

I have seen signs of nest-building only twice, fleetingly, at the Decoy Lake. It might be that the grebes are nesting deep within the reedbeds with plenty of material close by for the building, and don’t feel the need to wave reeds in front of my lens to prove that they’re doing it. I am fairly sure the hide pair have a nest in the reeds, with eggs, and were swapping over the incubation duties.

Great crested grebe at Shapwick Heath – one of the hide pair, looking elegant

Meanwhile, I’m keen to experiment a bit with camera angles, because lower angles tend to produce better shots. This is easier said than done, though, because it’s quite hard to find suitable vantage points unobscured by vegetation! The image below is a case in point, as it was taken peering through a gap between twigs and branches, and isn’t a particularly low angle, either.

Great Crested Grebe at the back of the Decoy Lake

There is one big advantage though of hunkering behind trees wondering whether you can get a clear sightline: the birds don’t see you so easily. These little grebes are often vocal but rarely seen, but on this occasion swam close to where I was crouching, oblivious to my being there.

LIttle grebes at the back of Shapwick Heath, oblivious to my lurking near them.

I probably don’t give the resident ducks enough respect, so I’ll finish with a couple of photos of them in a feeble attempt to redress the balance a bit.

Pochard on the Decoy Lake

Gadwall on the Decoy Lake

Territorial battles on the Decoy Lake

Although chasing rare birds is fun, it’s not practical for me these days 🙂 ! So I’ve been watching the grebes on the Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath for a few weeks now, and I’m finding that I’m learning much more than I’d expected. I’m learning to read their behaviour – of which there has been plenty this month.

By the end of February, I reckoned I had sussed out the territories on the lake. The pair that had been there through the winter had the pick of the sites, and chose the area to the left of the hide. One of them (the male?) was notable for defending his patch whenever threatened. To the right of the hide was a more recent pair that quite often invaded the left pair’s territory, with predictable consequences. The boundary between the two seemed to be from the left hand side of the hide to the tor, given the point at which hostilities would begin and end. In the distance, towards the tor and to the left-side of the lake, was another pair which didn’t seem to interact much with the two nearer pairs, and may well have held the whole of the far end of the lake – but were too far away for me to be sure.

Then came the snow. When Jen and I visited the hide on the snowy Friday, it seemed as if there was only one pair on the lake, and given where they emerged from this was probably the pair from the right of the hide – although I was slightly puzzled as this would mean that the wintering pair, despite holding on through the winter, had left.

One grebe pair remained during the snow.

After the snow left the other grebes returned – though apparently not all of them. A few days later I only saw one grebe at the far end: I presumed the other was hidden in or behind the various reed beds. I confidently explained the three territories to a couple who were visiting the hide for the first time – honestly, they seemed genuinely interested! – but the knowledge I was boasting of was no longer true. After they left, I happened to see that there were two pairs on the far left side, with only a few metres separating them, simultaneously doing courtship displays. This was clearly about territory as much as romance. I wish I’d been able to photograph this but they were too distant for a good photo.

The closer of the pairs then chased the other pair off – my next surprise was that the more distant of the two didn’t retreat into the distance, as I’d expected, but across the lake and back to area just to the right of the hide. In fact, as soon as they crossed the line from the hide to the tor, the male (presumably) changed from fleeing to defending. This can be see in the photo below if you click to enlarge.

The tor with grebes in the foreground. The left of the pair has just turned round to repel another grebe which had chased them off.

I discovered later that this was only one skirmish in a longer-running battle. By the time I returned the following week, order had been restored – but there had been a dramatic shift in territories, and I can only infer what had happened. The pair which was based to the right of the hide now seemed to have the freedom of the near half of the lake. Towards the far end of the lake, to the left, another pair was bobbing on the lake, calmly asleep.

What battles had taken place? Who had won? And which grebe was where? The simplest assumption may be that the wintering grebes, to the left of the lake, had been ousted, and they may have then settled at the back of the lake, territory that had been vacated by one of the earlier grebes not returning after the snow. I would have to interview the grebes themselves to produce a more reliable picture!

The advantage of this new arrangement, from my perspective anyway, is that the hide pair are freer to live their lives in front of the hide, without being chased off by the other pair. Take, for example, one extraordinary attempt at fishing….

Ambition

Oh blast

How on earth the grebe thought it would swallow that size of fish beats me! – and I was hardly surprised when it dropped its potential prize.

The grebes have been amorous all month and would regularly re-unite after a long separation of, say, half an hour, with prodigious headshaking and neck-bending.

The hide pair in the midst of one of their frequent courtship rituals.

I’ve not yet seen a full weed-dance this year in clear view – but came close last week.

Much splashing accompanied the grebes coming together.

“Darling, you’re so romantic, you’ve brought me weed!”

Only one of the pair had brought weed, so the dance ended fairly quickly.

Earlier this week I saw a territorial encounter between two of the grebes, on the far left of the lake, near where the two pairs had been displaying previously, and which confirmed my suspicions about the new territories.

Two of the grebes on the lake square up to each other.

It was only when I looked at the photos below carefully that I realised how far the left grebe had advanced, and how far the right grebe had had to back-paddle! I expected a full-blown fight but the left grebe dived away. He returned to his base, to the right of his hide, and a bit later he and his mate surveyed the territory where the stand-off had taken place, while the grebe that retreated remained a short way off, affecting a lack of interest. The re-configured territories are as I suspected: the hide pair now has the full width of the lake near the hide.

Much as I’m biased towards the grebes, there’s been plenty of other interesting wildlife on the lake. Earlier in the month another birder told me three whooper swans had been seen on the lake the previous evening – had I seen them? I hadn’t, and as we chatted over the next half hour, there was no sign of them. A few minutes after he left, two whooper swans swam in from the back of the lake – why they hadn’t already left for northern Europe was unclear.

Whooper swan passes one of the grebe pairs.

Whooper swans on the Decoy Lake

However, it makes sense to end this post with a couple of grebe portraits.

Great crested grebe on the Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath

Great crested grebe on the Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath

 

Romance and trash talk in Grebe World

It was early morning by the lake, and there was a hail shower. It wasn’t the sunny start that was forecast, so I sat back and thought, “no chance of the birds doing anything in this weather”. Then I looked across the lake and saw a pair of grebes in the middle of an intense courtship ritual. Even in the hail! But there was a phase of it that I’d never noticed before and was really impressive.

It started out as a normal courtship ritual…

Then one of them (the male?) shot off, turned round, and showed his wings in a magnificent pose.

The female then approached. Although she looks deferential here, in reality she’s just beginning to dive underneath.

They then finish the display with more courtship celebrations.

It was the triumphalist pose that particularly impressed me. It’s been called the ‘cat-display’, which seems an odd choice of name – but I’d not been aware of it until it was so dramatically displayed in the hail.

Dawn had in fact been much clearer and I’d gone in anticipation of a fine morning.

Sunrise towards the Tor from the Decoy Lake.

The Little Grebes revealed themselves more often by their whinnying calls from deep within reedbeds, but one individual showed itself in the morning sun before dashing off, running across the lake surface (a good trick it you’re small enough and fast enough).

Little Grebe in the morning sun.

Cloudy skies really don’t bring out the vivid colouration – but the advantage is that muted colours are easier to photograph: white feathers are otherwise easily overexposed.

Great crested grebe portrait.

Towards the end of the month I decided to go in the afternoon, on the basis that the lighting would be better. But again I was thwarted by sunshine that was only intermittent, and birds that seemed quite elusive. Nevertheless, a pair of little grebes swam across, showing off the finery of their breeding colours.

Little grebes in breeding plumage

By now there were three pairs of Great Crested Grebes on the lake, but none of them were being co-operative as far as I was concerned! They looked like they’d done their work for the day – that is, until the end, when I had begun to pack up, having removed the camera mount. The pair nearest the hide (but mostly obscured by reeds), swam into the middle and began to display. I then saw another pair had arrived from the far side, and was also displaying, and yet another was performing strange antics in front. I didn’t know which to look at.

It was only when I looked at the photos that I began to understand what had happened. With three pairs of grebes on the central part of the lake at the same time, the displays may have been more about territory than romance. In the photos below, the foreground grebe was expressing displeasure – and probably asserting his territorial boundary.

One pair of grebes is about to start displaying, while another one shows his displeasure.

“OK, lovebirds, watch what I’m doing… this is the boundary of my territory… you wouldn’t want to come to any harm, would you?”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the woods, there was plenty happening there as well. I’ve managed to secure a couple of decent Long-tailed tit photos. This may not seem much of a feat as they are common enough – but they are a difficult bird to photograph because they move very fast, and I’ve regularly failed before.

Long-tailed tit by the Decoy lake

I also came across a wintering chiffchaff, trying to find food in frosty ground, which was probably wondering why it hadn’t migrated south in the autumn.

Wintering chiffchaff, by a stream near the Decoy Lake.

The Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath

Prehistoric trackways, woodland, and a bird hide overlooking a lake: these are some of the reasons why one of my favourite spots around here is the Decoy Lake at the west end of Shapwick Heath.

I initially came across it some years ago on my first trip here – a futile quest to see otters – but even then realised that this particular lake is a good spot for the charismatic great crested grebe. The various routes to it are attractive, either through deciduous woodland or alongside a large reedbed. The woodland also contains a re-constructed trackway that was built around 1500BC, but next to the lake itself is the site of an even older trackway, dated by analysis of the tree-rings to 3607BC. This is the Sweet Track, named after the peat worker, Ray Sweet, who discovered it in 1970.

This year I’ve decided to focus particularly on this patch, and particularly the grebes – partly because my days of chasing rarities are receding 🙂 and partly because it is (for me) a new focus for the birdwatching.

Plenty of ducks wintered on the Decoy Lake this year: pintail at top left, shoveler top middle, the other four are gadwall.

I hadn’t quite realised before that the decoy lake is a good site for wintering ducks. Early in January there were large numbers – surprisingly many shovelers (characterised by their massive bills), and a few of the elegant pintails. The next time I went, towards the end of the month, I was surprised to see very few ducks and wondered where the others had gone. An hour or so later, as we neared sunset, small flocks of shovelers and teal splashed down, and the overall numbers were closer to the previous visit.

It’s easy to overlook tufted ducks as they’re quite common, but this group shows their handsomeness!

These teals splashed down on the lake in the late afternoon.

Great crested grebe with a male gadwall

As for grebes, though, things seemed a bit forlorn. Last year around February I counted up to seven adult great-crested grebes, so when I didn’t see any at the start of my first visit in January, I was a bit concerned. Eventually one emerged from a reedbed in the middle of the lake. I was distinctly relieved! I later saw a second one with different plumage. A couple of weeks later, though, there really was only one – but this one (right, with gadwall) was still in winter plumage, unlike the one below, photographed on the previous visit ten days earlier, had plumage which was more advanced towards breeding. I wondered what had happened to the other one.

I began to hope that the one or two grebes wintering here would be joined by others migrating in from elsewhere, otherwise there’d be much less to photograph and blog! I’d have to wait to February to begin to find out.

Great crested grebe on the decoy lake

A grey winter’s day on the Decoy Lake, looking north from the hide, with a grebe at front left.