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 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

Spring Flowers


Bluebell Wood in the Chilterns
Bluebell Wood in the Chilterns

Gorse in full bloom
Gorse in full bloom

One of the delights of living in the British Isles, particularly England and Wales is the way in which spring surprises us every year with the astonishing beauty of the flowers.

To my mind the bluebell should be the English national flower and at this time of year it appears like magic to carpet the woodland floor with an azure mist that changes in tone from blue to violet depending on the play of light through the almost leafless canopy. Literally millions of stems topped with a drooping head of delicate flowers giving off a wonderful scent.  Happily these days people who take a trip out to see the bluebell woods (many of them found on the Chilterns and Downs) come to look and to photograph and not, as in the past, to dig up the plants and try to grow them in their gardens – usually unsuccessfully for the British bluebell needs the company of friends if it is to continue to delight the eye and the senses.

To my mind a bluebell wood in full glory with the first orange tip butterflies and brimstone butterflies trying to get at the nectar-filled florets is one of the most wonderful sights in nature…. But it is the bumble bee that is the master, or to be correct (the mistress) for all the bumble bees collecting nectar and pollinating flowers are female.

And it’s not only the bluebell that is delighting us at the moment…  Gorse, a leguminous plant and a member of the world wide pea family, is thriving in golden splendour. Like other members of this family it has a property that allows it to grow in the most unpromisingly infertile soil conditions by adopting a specific type of soil bacteria with a capability to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it as soluble nitrogen that the plant can then use as food. In consequence gorse will flower at the most unexpected times of the year, hence one of my favourite old country sayings about wild flowers “There will always be love as long as the Gorse blossoms.” which is encouraging for romantics like me as there are always gorse flowers in bloom somewhere.  Indeed at the moment, on heaths and downland there is a mass of the nectar-rich, snap-dragon-like flowers of golden gorse, to the delight of the early bees.  If you stand downwind from a bank of gorse you can smell the sweetness in the air.

Two Tree Island

Wren-courtesy of Peter Willmott

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Picture courtesy of Peter Willmott

This week I travelled with friend and fellow natural history photographer, Peter Willmott, to the wilds of the Thames Estuary and the Essex Wildlife Trust’s nature reserve Two Tree Island.  The two majestic elm trees for which the reserve was named were lost to the joint effects of Dutch elm disease and harsh gales and these days the area is covered with a variety of bushes few of which could be described as trees.  The main attraction is the vast expanse of ever changing estuary with its food-rich mud full of shellfish and marine worms, crabs and a rare and precious estuary plant called zostera or sea grass – food for the huge flocks of Brent geese that winter here building up their strength for the long journey north to the Arctic Tundra where they will breed and raise a new generation of their kind.  As the tide ebbs and flows under the gravitational influence of moon and sun thousands of hectares of glistening chocolate-coloured mud opens up to wildlife like a well-stocked supermarket.

In winter the island is home to a variety of wildlife and the mud echoes with the fluting calls of curlew and chirruping tiny waders that run about like clockwork toys picking up tiny scraps of food. Redshank and oyster catchers set up frantic alarm calls seemingly for no other reason than they like to hear the sound of their own voices.  However, Two Tree Island is not just for winter or for wetland birds; the bushes and clumps of blackberry brambles hold myriad songbirds, some of them spring migrants and others that are local residents.

Peter and I were watching the birds from the hide overlooking the lagoon and the antics of pairing avocets sweeping their elegant sail-maker’s needle-like beaks through the water’s surface in unison.  Looking out of a bird hide with modern optics highlights distant events while other, equally important things are going on just in front of you – under your nose. Such a one occurred when a wren, full of the joys of spring and keen on defending its territory, appeared from the bushes in front of the hide, little more than a meter and a half away. Peter had his camera at the ready, but by the time I had focussed mine, the wren, fed up with waiting for me, flew off. Peter’s picture, however, is a classic.

In a week or so the Brent geese will be up and away to their northern breeding grounds, but for the moment, they are still flying in large flocks as the tide turns, filling the air with their barking, chuckling contact calls.



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?