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

My First Full Blog

Walking with swans
Walking with swans

 

This is my first full blog, hopefully the first of many and as you can see from my picture I am one of the “grey” generation.  I live in the UK; I’m a writer, photographer, painter and sometime broadcaster specialising in wildlife and the countryside.  I’ve written a number of books and thousands of articles for newspapers and magazines, illustrated with my own photographs and artwork…. Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by our fantastic and beautiful world; by the myriad creatures, plants and landscapes with which we share the planet.

As a working naturalist I’ve had the good fortune to pass on my interest in the natural world to readers, listeners and viewers… And through this blog, I hope to be able to continue to share some of the things I come across, be they exotic or every-day wildlife happenings.

In the UK spring is making itself felt. Native birds like robins, blackbirds hedge-sparrows and titmice are setting up nesting territories and singing.  We are an incredibly fortunate species, we hear birdsong as beautiful natural music and the many different landscapes that we delight is where the majority of wildlife lives. The beautiful dawn chorus is actually a message to birds of the same species either to keep out because this particular territory is taken, or an invitation to a female that the singer will make a good provider and has a territory with food and shelter for the family they can raise together.  Spring birdsong in Britain is nearly always sung by male birds, mostly the females simply issue contact calls.

Nature holds is breath as the vanguard of spring migrants sweep up from the continents of Africa and Asia. The first sand martins and swallows have arrived on the east coast.  These small, seemingly delicate birds have travelled thousands of miles and will search out the sandy cliffs that  provide easy tunnelling for their nests.  The RSPB reserve at Minsmere is often a good place to see them.   Unfortunately for many bird migrants their mind-blowing journey will end on one of the islands in the Mediterranean prey to trappers and shooters who kill them for sport and for the table as they are considered to be culinary delicacies.

As I write the sun is making patterns on the hillside outside my window and spring is in the air – what better time to begin a blog on nature.

Dennis Furnell – now on Kindle!

Despite my advanced years I am now proud to say I am well and truly grasping 21st Century technology with both hands.  After several weeks of intensive learning/training/editing (call it what you will!) we have now been able to launch “Mammals, Reptiles and Amphibians of the British Isles” on Kindle

It can be purchased here for just £5.71 and have it downloaded to either a Kindle or even the Kindle App on your smartphone or tablets.

I’m really proud to have made this first step in publishing in the new world of digital print!

Let me know what you think?