Bitten off more than he can Chew!

One of the most important birds on the British and European List is great crested grebe; a bird beautifully designed by nature to live and breed, on ponds, lakes and reservoirs.. Brown in colour above and silvery white below with feet set well back on its torpedo-shaped body, it has a long flexible nexk and sharp pointed beak. It is the perfect fishing machine and one that played a vital part in the beginnings of that most famous and influential conservation organisation the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – better known as the RSPB.

I had the good fortune to begin my working life as a naturalist as a member of the film unit of the RSPB; in those days there were only two of us and I was very much the junior partner – the membership was 10,000 and now it is over one million. The Society began in the Edwardian era when a group of influential ladies became concerned about the fashion in hats, or to be more accurate the feather decorations used by milliners. Hats were becoming ever larger and more extreme, the feathers coming from birds such ass egrets and grebes; even tiny humming birds were being killed for their skins and plumes, often during the breeding season when they are at their most showy. Greed and profit was driving some species to the brink of extinction the great crested grebe being one of them and their numbers crashed under the pressure until only a few pairs remained in the UK.

The story of the RSPB’s foundation and its meteoric growth is available on their website http://www.rspb.org.uk and it is well worth a look.

My fascination with this beautiful, elegant and, happily now more common bird began when, as a voluntary warden at a group of balance reservoirs in Tring, Hertfordshire, I watched them building their nests on floating rafts of water plants anchored to reeds. The striped and dotted black on grey chicks are fed on small fish caught by the adults by diving (making hardly more than a ripple on the water) which brings me to the point of my tale. was out and about with a friend a little earlier in the year looking for early spring damselflies and spotted a female grebe sitting on a nest. Great crested grebes are devoted pairs so I looked around for the male – usually patrolling his territory nearby to keep off intruders.

was soon rewarded by the sight of the male diving for fish. Looked at closely, they appear to fold the water around themselves as they slide beneath the surface submerging, as I said, without barely a ripple.. This is where a pair of good binoculars is invaluable; it;s almost impossible to guess where the grebe is going to surface so a wide angle of view is vital. In this instance the grebe surfaced with some commotion not far from where it had dived, it’s long pointed beak wide open with its catch which appeared to be a large tench.  The photos show that the bird definitely had “eye bigger than its belly” and for the next 10 minutes struggled to swallow the over sized beakful. It began by raising the unweilldy tench, presumably the theory being that gravity would help. .Practice however, showed that the fish was too heavy for the grebe to keep its head high enough. With a huge splash the fish firmly gripped in its beak, bird and fish hit the water and went under for a few seconds… impasse.The grebe kept on trying, but I lot sight of it after it dived again at the edge of the reed bed, so I never saw the outcome.

greatcrested grebe with fish
Great Crested Grebe with large tench by Dennis Furnell

We came back to the same spot about an hour later and there was the male – no sign of the fish and it is extremely hard to tell if a crested grebe is sitting lower in the water !!  Looking again at this exquisite bird with its feather “ear tufts” I am so glad the ladies of the RSPB succeeded in helping to change the fashion for hats decorated with bits of dead birds.

Great crested grebe trying to swallow fish  copyright Dennis furnell
Great crested grebe trying to swallow fish copyright Dennis Furnell

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