Keeping an Eye on rare grebes

If you speed along the M6 over the Thelwall viaduct – which crosses the Manchester Ship Canal and the river Mersey – you could easily miss the fact that you are within a stone’s throw of a lovely nature reserve which hosts a colony of one of Britain’s rarest breeding birds, the Black-necked Grebe.

The bridge onto the number 3 bed at Woolson Eyes Nature Reserve

The footbridge onto the number 3 bed at Woolson Eyes Nature Reserve

The Woolston Eyes Nature Reserve is independently run by a group of volunteers. Its centrepiece is the ‘No. 3 bed’, which is virtually an island, nestled within a river meander and cut off by another canal. It seems an ideal place for a rare bird to breed, because it is difficult for humans to access, as one requires both a permit and a key to unlock the gate on the footbridge across to it! The site itself is dominated by mixed scrubland, which provides much bird-friendly habitat, and a large, shallow lake on which the grebes live.

One of the first thing that struck me at the lake was the large and noisy colony of black-headed gulls, and I wondered whether they represented a threat to the grebes’ safety. I discovered later that the opposite appears to be the case: the grebes often nest near colonies of black-headed gulls, which probably provide some form of protection, possibly as an early-warning system.

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

There are about 50 to 100 breeding pairs in the UK every year, which are at the western end of a Eurasian population of about 100,000 – most of which live in Russia and Ukraine. There’s also a very abundant subspecies in the western USA, and another smaller one in southern Africa – so despite their rarity in Britian they are not significantly threatened on a global scale.

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Grebe species are almost invariably attractive to look at, and the black-necked ones are no exception with their bright yellow ear-tufts.

As I arrived I happened to meet Brian Martin, the recorder for the site: he was very helpful in telling me about the layout of the site and where the best hides were for the grebes. It struck me that there are real benefits to having a nature reserve being run by volunteers, who are doing it because of their own enthusiasm and passion; a similar example might be Upton Warren near Droitwich, which belongs to the Wilidlife Trusts but is also managed by a committed team of volunteers.

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Black-necked grebes are very watchable, being highly active – mainly because they are constantly diving for food. Photographically, this provided a challenge: I’d line up the camera to take the photo and, just as I was pressing the shutter, the grebe would dive from view!

Black-necked grebe diving from view

Black-necked grebe diving from view

This particular grebe species appears to be highly social: thus on one occasion some years ago Brian Martin saw about 24 active in one small part of the lake. Perhaps because of this sociality they have a reputation for rapidly colonising an area and then abandoning it with equal rapidity.

Like most grebes they have distinctive courtship rituals: I saw several pairs go through head-shaking routines. However these rituals are not as elaborate as those of Great Crested or Slavonian grebes.

Black-necked grebes are highly social.

Black-necked grebes are highly social.

Despite the time I spent looking at the black-necked grebes, my best grebe photos were of a Great Crested early in the day: it’s a larger bird which also came much closer to the hide.

Great Crested Grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Great Crested Grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Keep clear of that beak…

On the bank holiday Monday, while Jen was preparing for a debate, I went down to the Avalon Marshes in Somerset for a birding trip. Despite the disappearance of a rare bird I’d hoped to see, it was a great trip, because of the richness and diversity of the wildlife there.

Ham Wall

The Ham Wall nature reserve – with Glastonbury Tor in the background.

Ham Wall and the neighbouring reserves are well known for hobbies: small, agile falcons that specialise in catching large insects. Even so, spring is particularly good for them here as it is a staging post on their migration: many of them congregate over the marshes to fatten up before dispersing to other parts of the country. At one point there were a couple of dozen in the air at the same time. It was a spectacular sight!

Neither my photography skills nor my camera were up to photographing the fast-flying hobbies, but the lighting was excellent for an obliging great-crested grebe.

Great crested grebe at Ham Wall

Great crested grebe at Ham Wall

In the afternoon I went across the road to Shapwick Heath – the next reserve along – and spent some time at the hide above Noah’s Lake. It’s a location where odd things seem to happen: I once saw a bat descend from the hide around midday, do a couple of circuits skimming the water immediately in front of the hide, and then return to the roof from which it had come.

Little egret preening

Little egret preening

This time the entertainment surrounded a little egret and a grey heron, which had the same ideas about which three perches were the best hunting spots. The egret would pick first, but then would be ejected a little later by the much larger heron.

The hide was almost directly above one of these perches, which afforded remarkable views of both birds. Although heron normally fly off when spotted by humans, this one was unfazed by those in the hide… and besides, the lake was chock full of fish so there was plenty of reason not to be too fussy about spectators…

Not sure I'd want to get too close to that beak...

Not sure I’d want to get too close to that beak… grey heron at Shapwick Heath

There was plenty of roach in the lake, as there had been at Ham Wall. Getting a whole fish down the gullet seemed a difficult manoeuvre for both heron and grebe, but the end result was the same for both birds (and both fish).

Roach was on the menu

Roach was on the menu for both the heron and the grebe

The idyllic Loch Ruthven and its Slavonian grebes

Loch Ruthven  - a beautiful and tranquil reserve near Loch Ness

Loch Ruthven – a beautiful and tranquil reserve

Last week I spent some time at an idyllic nature reserve – Loch Ruthven, situated near the northern end of Loch Ness. It’s home to one of Britain’s rarest breeding birds, the Slavonian grebe, but other notable birds can drop in at almost any time, as I found even while I was watching.

Osprey at Loch Ruthven

Osprey at Loch Ruthven

On the Tuesday morning I arrived just after dawn. After a while, an osprey (which had been seen the previous day) started patrolling the lake, before perching in one of the trees on the opposite side. However, I did not see it try to fish.

Black-throated diver at Loch Ruthven

Black-throated diver at Loch Ruthven

Nevertheless, this was not the day’s most exciting discovery! As I was scanning the lake with my scope, I spotted a bird that was swimming through, serenely and majestically, and could hardly believe my good fortune – it was unmistakably a black-throated diver!

Although it is also one of Britain’s rarer breeding birds, its significance for me was more personal. When I was a kid, Dad had been desperate to see this species, and had instigated a futile chase to try and see one – only for Mum to spot one on a loch just off the main road! (Story here) I’d planned to go looking for it later in the week, so for this one to drift in at Loch Ruthven was most exciting!

Slavonian grebe pair

Slavonian grebe pair

Nevertheless it’s the Slavonian grebes that are the main attraction on the lake – and with their chestnut and black coloration and bright yellow ear tufts, it’s not hard to see why. Like most grebes they are very watchable, with plenty of antics that are intriguing and entertaining.

A pair had taken up residence close to the hide, but their nest platform had been destroyed by waves on the loch – so earlier in the week they were fairly distant.

On the Saturday, I suspected things might become more eventful when I heard the male calling for its mate – a plaintive mewing sound. I was puzzled, as I thought they had already paired up, but there was at least one other grebe in the area, which may have complicated things.

Little grebe at Loch Ruthven

Little grebe at Loch Ruthven

Then the grebe became territorial, heading towards one of the sedge beds, where he proceeded to eject three little grebes from the area. (Yes, three – clearly their world wasn’t straightforward either!). Thus triumphant, he swam towards the middle of the lake – whereupon the little grebe pair snuck in behind to reclaim the area they’d been ejected from!

The male Slav grebe re-united with its mate, and to celebrate they went through their extraordinary and beautiful courtship display: it felt a privilege to be able to watch them in action.

The Slav grebes during one of their courtship displays

The Slav grebes during one of their courtship displays

Nevertheless I was puzzled as to what they were going to do for a territory; and thought this was a mystery I was unlikely to see resolved as I planned to leave late morning. I was about to pack up when I noticed the pair steaming across the lake, heading straight for the sedge beds. They soon busied themselves gathering nesting material – in a different area to the one where the male had been fighting the little grebes.

Gathering nesting material

Gathering nesting material

They gave up shortly afterwards though – presumably to return to the task later.

With the tranquil beauty of the lake and its environment, and the birds which either live there or pass through, Loch Ruthven has become my favourite nature reserve – narrowly squeezing past Greatham Creek!

Slavonian Grebe at Loch Ruthven

Slavonian Grebe at Loch Ruthven

Dinosaur watching

Red-necked grebe at Farmoor reservoir

Yesterday was a bird-intensive experience. I’d signed up to a one-day course at Oxford University called ‘Birds of a feather’, presenting some of the latest science on bird evolution. However, I started the day about five miles west, at Farmoor Reservoir, as a rare grebe had dropped in for the week.

The day conference, which took place at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, focussed on two main areas of research: first, the spectacular yield of bird fossils from China; second, the dramatic improvement in understanding of the DNA of birds and other groups of animals.

Red-necked grebe

Red-necked grebe: possibly the same one that dropped by last autumn?

What makes the Chinese fossils, from Jehol, so important is the exquisite preservation of soft tissue as well as the harder, bony skeleton. This means that the development of feathers can be followed.

In particular, it is now clear that primitive feathers were widespread among the dinosaurs – as tufty structures which probably helped with insulation. Thus, even the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex was feathery!

It took some while for feathers to evolve from being downy structures to ones that were capable of enabling flight. Nevertheless, the fossil record beautifully shows how feathers evolved, from the early tufts for insulation to the flight feathers in birds.

Meanwhile, DNA analysis has shown unequivocally that birds have descended from the dinosaurs. In fact, it would be correct to say that birds are dinosaurs – they are the dinosaurs which survived the mass extinction when the Yucatan meteorite struck 65 million years ago, perhaps because they were warm-blooded while their cousins remained cold-blooded.

Thus, in an important sense, the red-necked grebe at Farmoor Reservoir is a dinosaur, and that the other birders who had arrived to photograph it in its breeding plumage were, like me, dinosaur watchers.

The grebe showed a prodigious ability to catch fish.

The grebe showed a prodigious ability to catch fish.

Irrespective of its ancestors, the hour at Farmoor Reservoir in the morning was most enjoyable, as the grebe showing itself to be a prodigious fisher. I’d seen the same species there last autumn, so it’s tempting to conclude that it’s the same bird stopping off at the same location on the way back to its breeding territory – although virtually impossible to prove. Despite its ability to catch the fish, it did seem to have some difficulty adjusting them into the head-first position for swallowing – and lost a couple in the process.

Oh blast, it got away...

Oh blast, it got away…

Despite the losses, it still managed to catch and swallow a good number – a hearty breakfast!

Red-necked grebe at Farmoor Reservoir

Early morning at Farmoor Reservoir, the water was very tranquil

A year in grebes!

Little grebe at Ham Wall in August

Little grebe at Ham Wall in August

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.

Pied-billed grebe

Pied-billed grebe

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!

Black-necked grebes near Tamworth

Black-necked grebes near Tamworth

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.

Slavonian grebe at Farmoor Reservoir (click to enlarge)

Slavonian grebe at Farmoor Reservoir (click to enlarge)

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.

Red-necked grebe having a snack

Red-necked grebe having a snack

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.

Great crested grebe (click to enlarge)

Great crested grebe (click to enlarge)

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.

Black-necked grebes near Tamworth

Tamworth may not seem like the obvious spot for unusual breeding birds, but there are a number of lakes near the River Tame. One of these is Dosthill Lake, which is part water-ski centre and part nature reserve, on which four rather stunning black-necked grebes settled this week.

Black-necked grebe, with the more familiar great-crested grebe for comparison.

Black-necked grebe, with the more familiar great-crested grebe for comparison.

Two of the black-necked grebes at Dosthill Water Park

Two of the black-necked grebes at Dosthill Lake

Each year they undergo a remarkable transformation from their winter colour scheme of white, grey and black, into their breeding finery of black, chestnut and a pair of striking yellow ear-tufts. Unfortunately we don’t often get to see this change, as only a few winter here and even fewer breed: these islands are the extreme western end of their European breeding range, which centers on Eastern Europe.

The domestic arrangements of the 4 at Dosthill seemed complicated: there is an obvious pair into which a third regularly appears, while a fourth is an occasional visitor at best. This is shown below, and if they weren’t grebes, I’d think the fourth was leaving in a huff!

The gaggle of three huddle together, while the fourth departs in the opposite direction.

The gaggle of three huddle together, while the fourth departs in the opposite direction.

The triad of black-necked grebes

The triad of black-necked grebes

Floating on the air

Barn owl in a field on the route from Shipston

Barn owl in a field on the route from Shipston

Some of the greatest wildlife thrills are those that come unexpectedly. This afternoon, as I was driving back from Shipston-on-Stour – where I’d had a great day with Will & Anne Neale – I noticed, floating along the hedgerow by the side of the road, an unmistakable owl.

By the time I’d parked and got my camera out, it had flown further off, but remained just within range of binoculars and camera. For a few minutes I was able to watch and photograph it, before it lifted off and sailed over to a field further away.

Barn owl flying along the edge of a field on the route from Shipston

Barn owl flying along the edge of a field on the route from Shipston

Last week I went again to Upton Warren to photograph the courtship rituals of the great crested grebes. As luck would have it, they decided to do so on the far side of a reedbed, so I felt frustrated peering between bullrushes before they drifted out of view. When I downloaded the images, I suddenly realised that the bullrushes, far from being in the way, provided both context and that elusive quality, ‘atmosphere’.

An intimate moment: great crested grebes at Upton Warren

An intimate moment: great crested grebes at Upton Warren (click to enlarge)