The Little Grebe: Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 2)

On a cold, grey, windy day on the east side of Lindisfarne, about seven years ago, I sat in a bird hide watching a lone little grebe on a small lake. Frankly, I’d expected a bit more… I was on a trip to the island with the vicar factory, and during the free afternoon I decided to head to the bird hide that I had spotted on the map. As Lindisfarne is well known for its birding, my expectations were higher than just the one bird.

That was the day that I discovered that little grebes are very watchable. They are busy birds, and for the half hour I was there this little grebe was constantly diving for food. I found myself enthralled to watch it.

A few years later I wrote a blog article called “Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 1)“, featuring a couple of decent photos of a little grebe in winter plumage: and I intended to make my case a few weeks later once I had acquired some photos of their breeding plumage… but I’ve only just succeeded. I could try to make this sound like a long and arduous trail with lots of twists and turns of fate – but that would be untrue! The little grebe is a common waterbird – just rather little, so photographing it well necessitated it’s being fairly close in good lighting.

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Little grebe at Ham Wall

Little grebe at Ham Wall: look at the water before and after!

The Tor Hide at Ham Wall provides some good photographic opportunities for grebes. They swim around in front of the hide with the appearance of serenity… but the photo here, showing the calm water in front and the churned-up water behind, shows just how hard the bird is working to move around!

The little grebe is also known as the dabchick, a name that strikes me as a bit patronising on account of its diminutive size – but it’s still a grebe and thus quite specialised, particularly for diving fast after small aquatic prey. Perhaps if it was called the ‘chestnut-throated grebe’ it would be given more respect…

It also has a rather striking call – a loud whinnying call which is instantly recognisable when you know what it is. It featured on Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day in July 2016, and is also listed in their list of top ten strangest bird sounds.

The other day I visited the Catcott Lows nature reserve with Jen and her mum, going to the new Tower Hide. Although it’s a lovely location the lake was bit lacking in bird life – but there was an active little grebe on the lake. Some years after that day on Lindisfarne, I still find little grebes very watchable – capable of redeeming a dull day anywhere!

As luck would have it, only a few days after posting this blog, I found myself visiting the National Trust’s Wallington estate in Nortthumberland. On one of the large ponds there was a very obliging little grebe that was nowhere near as shy and retiring as the species is meant to be. Hence I ended up with my best photo yet of a little grebe in breeding plumage!

An obliging Little Grebe at the NT Wallington estate.

Wildlife surprises on Shapwick Heath

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Jen and Rachel on the replica of the Sweet Track at Shapwick Heath.

Just over a week ago Jen’s friend Rachel visited us from Vienna. They were discussing what to do, so I persuaded them that it would be a great treat to go on a walk on Shapwick Heath, ending at a bird hide. 🙂 This would give Rachel an experience of the Somerset Levels, by going through woodland and around marshland, and seeing the reconstructed Neolithic Sweet Track. The fact that some bird-watching might happen as well was of course pure coincidence… ahem…

When we arrived at the Decoy Hide,  I gave them a rather waffly introduction to the birds on the lake – many of which were wintering ducks. I also pointed out the great crested grebes, and said that they’re well known for an elaborate courtship ritual called the weed dance, which I had never seen before. Shortly afterwards, Jen noticed that a pair of them were looking amorously at each other. To my astonishment, about ten minutes later this pair rushed together with beaks full of weed, and performed the entire dance in full view of the hide!

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Great Crested Grebes doing the weed dance in front of the Decoy Hide on Shapwick Heath.

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Little egret fishing at Noah’s Lake on Shapwick Heath.

A few days later John Linney came down to visit from Cheltenham. This time we went to Noah’s Lake at the eastern end of Shapwick Heath: there seemed to be thousands of wigeon wintering on the lake, along with a small number of pintails and other species. We had a good sighting of a kingfisher fishing, though it sped away before I could photograph it. There was also a little egret fishing close to the hide, which provided a great photographic opportunity.

As we walked back to the car park we noticed a couple of mid-sized starling flocks flying over. Last week, with Jen and Rachel, we had watched the starlings roosting from Ham Wall, but they had moved away from where they had been earlier in the winter, where they had settled close to the path, to somewhere that looked about a mile distant: it was a bit of an anti-climax. I therefore hadn’t mentioned them to John and assumed that the flocks flying over were merely a splinter group. Then it dawned on me: the starlings were re-locating again, and had chosen Shapwick Heath! Indeed there was a small crowd coming in from Ham Wall with the same realisation. John and I turned back and were almost too late for the best display: but what we saw was the best murmuration that I have seen since arriving in the area. John was delighted by what he saw – as indeed were the groups arriving from Ham Wall.

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Starlings on Shapwick Heath

Both of these experiences reminded me of the unpredictability of wildlife watching – which is a part of the essential charm of it as a pursuit!

A red start to a few days around Mousehole

Andrew – Jen’s bro – booked us all in for a few days in Mousehole over the New Year weekend. I was much looking forward to this anyway – but when an Eastern Black Redstart turned up there about ten days’ previously, I started to get a little twitchy…

I don’t normally take that much interest in sub-species but this one is a bit different… it’s much prettier (and redder) than the normal European black redstart, which is present in small numbers in the UK throughout the year; but, more notably, as it breeds in central Asia and winters in the Middle East, it shouldn’t normally be here – so why a small handful have turned up in the UK this winter is anyone’s guess. [A good guide to the black redstart subspecies is here: ref.]

Thus the first morning we were in Mousehole I headed down to the beach where it was residing (having briefly seen it the previous night), and spent a couple of hours trying to get some good photos.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

As we did during the summer, Jen and I also went in search of some of the ancient archaeoloigcal remains in the area. One of these is the Tregiffian Burial chamber from around the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. This type is unique to the area, with around a hundred on the Scilly Isles (eg here) and only about a dozen in west Cornwall. It’s bizarrely close to the B3315!

Tregiffian Entrance Grave - similar to ones found in the Scillies

Tregiffian Entrance Grave – similar to ones found in the Scillies

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Rachel’s amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for George. Photo by Andrew.

Jen and I had a windswept coastal walk near Porthgwarra on the Saturday morning. We started near the Minack open air theatre, and passed St Levan’s holy well: this is one of the more impressively natural of the wells that I’ve seen, and lies close to the ruined foundations of an early Comish church. Later that day, we had another windy trip to Land’s End with Andrew & Rachel, Sophie & George in the afternoon. Not exactly photogenic weather conditions – but an attack of the flu later on put paid to other chances!

Despite this, it was great to be able to spend a few days with Jen’s family. We celebrated George’s second birthday on the Saturday, so Rachel cooked an amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for him!

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land's End

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land’s End

We did however manage a little bird-watching on the morning of our return…. I’d like to say that the photo of this whimbrel took lots of careful thought with the lighting, shadows and reflections on the beach – but it was just luck…

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

The starlings and the reedbed

One thing which had intrigued me about the starlings roosting in the reeds at Ham Wall was how they did so: did they perch, one starling per reed, in an orderly manner? And if so, did they perch sideways, and was it at the top or the bottom? A couple of weeks ago I found out. slightly unexpectedly.

I was watching one evening from one of the hides, thinking it would provide a better photographic backdrop, but I wasn’t particularly close. Then something spooked them, and they ended up settling just opposite the hide. I discovered that the reeds became thick with starlings, and bent under the sheer weight of them – far more chaotically than I had ever realised!

A section of reedbed, before and after the starlings arrived, taken from the same spot. (Confusingly, the lower photo, despite being lighter, was actually quite a bit later than the first photo).

A section of reedbed, before and after the starlings arrived, taken from the same spot. (Confusingly, the lower photo, despite being lighter, was actually quite a bit later than the first photo).

It had been quite a spectacular roosting already. An early shot that evening appeared to epitomise the area: starling flocks crossing one way while a Great White Egret flew in the other – and Glastonbury Tor in the background. Later it was amazing to see just how many starlings flew in to roost – a couple of times it looked like there were rivers of starlings flying over.

Starlings going to roost while a Great White Egret flies serenely across.

Starlings going to roost while a Great White Egret flies serenely across: Glastonbury Tor in the background.

A river of starlings flows over

A river of starlings flows over

A bedraggled buzzard and a flock of lapwings

My mother arrived for a few days at the end of last week so, as the weather was forecast to deteriorate, we decided to go for a drive around the levels for her to get a feel for the area. What I wasn’t expecting was much in the way of wildlife. I was wrong.

First of all mum noticed a buzzard on a fence post – nothing unusual in that, except that it didn’t move when we parked next to it and I got the camera out. Normally a buzzard would take one disdainful look at the birder and fly off magnificently: this one stayed close by for several minutes. Looking at the photographs it looks like it had had a thorough soaking from the recent rain storm, which explains why it seemed to be hanging its wings out to dry – and why for a bird of prey it looks oddly vulnerable.

A bedraggled buzzard near Westhay, hanging its wings out slightly

A bedraggled buzzard near Westhay, hanging its wings out slightly

Having said that, it still had a keen eye for potential prey…

It still wasn't going to miss a moment looking for potential prey...

It still wasn’t going to miss a moment looking for potential prey…

We drove on a little further when I noticed a field full of lapwings – I did a U-turn so that I could stop by the side of the road. Although I’ve seen large flocks of them in nature reserves, seeing them here was completely unexpected – and they chose a photogenic backdrop as well!

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

We then proceeded on along the Westhay Moor Drove, and a couple of the other lanes to make a circuit before going back to the Vicarage.

A couple of days later we had a more regular experience with birdwatching: seeing the starling murmuration at Ham Wall. Sunday’s show was much the best that I’ve seen.

Starling  murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling  murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starlings and a Yellowlegs

This is starling season on the Somerset levels, as extraordinary numbers of starlings roost in the Avalon marshes. As I was about to take Jen to the airport early on Monday morning, three flocks flew straight over the Vicarage. I therefore decided to head out to Ham Wall this morning to see their dawn departure.

I arrived before sunrise and waited with one other birder. We could hear the starlings chattering, so we knew their departure was imminent. Then there was an extraordinary sound, like that of distant thunder – an aerial stampede as thousands upon thousands of pairs of wings took to flight, as the starlings rose over the reedbed.

The starlings emerge over the reedbed at Ham Wall

The starlings emerge over the reedbed at Ham Wall

A dense cloud of starlings

A dense cloud of starlings

They didn’t do much in the way of a murmuration but they were a spectacular sight nonetheless. After they departed, I continued to wander round the reserve, and my eye caught a couple of cormorants and a heron, which were doing their early morning ablutions.

Cormorants and a heron at sunrise

Cormorants and a heron at sunrise

A couple of weeks back an American wader, a Lesser Yellowlegs, spent a few days residing at Cheddar Reservoir. Every year a small number (perhaps 5 to 10) cross the Atlantic, perhaps having been blown off course on their autumn migration. The one at Cheddar conveniently remained close to the outer edge of the reservoir where it was easy to see and photograph.

Lesser Yellowlegs at Cheddar Reservoir

Lesser Yellowlegs at Cheddar Reservoir

Lesser Yellowlegs, feeding at Cheddar Reservoir

Lesser Yellowlegs, feeding at Cheddar Reservoir

It had stayed long enough that I was sure it was going to remain for the winter (they occasionally do) – but it left about ten days’ ago and hasn’t been seen since. It begs a couple of questions… Did it know roughly where it was – the wrong side of a very large herring pond? Did it try to head back across the Atlantic, or has it settled somewhere else, undetected?

The majestic kingfisher

One of the lesser-known hides here – Canada Lake – is brilliant for kingfishers. Having decided to visit more of the reserves in the area, I’d gone to see what was there, and after a while noticed a couple of them zipping around the near side of the lake. A branch next to the hide had been deliberately placed as a perch for them, but they seemed to be using one closer to the water’s edge, and on the wrong side of the reeds from where I was sat; but then, just before I was about to leave, one landed on the branch. Watching and photographing it made me realise, yet again, what magnificent birds they are.

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide: I was lucky that the lighting was just right for the photos - as long as she looked in the right direction!

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide: I was lucky that the lighting was just right for the photos – as long as she looked in the right direction!

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide: magificent he may be, but you wouldn't want to be on the wrong end of that bill...

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide: magificent she may be, but you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of that bill…

And then she was off...

And then she was off…