Thursday, 15 August 2013

Great Crested Grebes...An Urban Family

I’ve watched the Great Crested Grebes on Killingworth Lake for a few years now, but even more intensely for the past two years, as I’ve been so inspired by my fellow patch birder Sam, who I confess has done more watching and definitely more photographing of these grebes than I have.  We both have a growing knowledge of the grebe family of species in general as a result of our efforts and subsequent reading.  Without doubt the Great Crested Grebes attract the attention of folk who would take little interest in the lake otherwise!  Having led over fifty people around the patch over the past two or three years ensures (I would hope) that I can’t be accused of a selfish outlook on patch birding.  There is a great benefit in this attention, in that the birds and situation are being watched and people are taking an interest, more so this year than in any previous year I can remember.  This can only be of benefit to the birds and all concerned in a growing urbanisation of this area, so the more photos and comments seen about the wildlife that exists here the better.  It reminds the powers that be that there is interest and that folk are watching!  I’m still none the less disinclined to give too much away about what I find on patch, as I believe the best way to learn about nature is to go out and watch it for yourself and make you own discoveries, or share this experience with like minded people.  



Laying the first egg
Sam and I have been asked how we know that we are watching the same pair of grebes in recent years.  The simple answer is that we can’t scientifically prove we are, but because of the nature of the behaviour and nesting habits of these very productive birds, we are positive that it is the same pair that has returned over the past few years.  I’ve mentioned some weeks ago that the pair was a month late in nesting this year, probably because of the very cold spring temperatures.  The first nest was abandoned for reasons I have also mentioned in previous blogs, but a second nest was built soon afterwards and two juvenile birds fledged and subsequently dispersed. Dispersal  took place very quickly this year, bringing at least one comment from a visitor that dispersal could not have taken place and that something may have happened to the juveniles prior to it happening.  Sam and I are quite sure that these strong and healthy birds did disperse.  It so happened that a juvenile Great Crested Grebe was reported at Arcot Pond about this time and we are believe it was more than likely one of the Killingworth juveniles.  Whilst the juvenile birds have tended to remain with the parent birds for longer periods prior to dispersal in recent years, the literature suggests that the juveniles can be independent by age of six weeks.  I also believe that the parent birds, having been delayed with the first nest, where ready to follow their usual pattern and lay a second clutch and this is likely to have encouraged the juveniles to move.

The Great Crested Grebes were found building a second nest by Sam on 4th July.   This nest was attached to the floating structure (once the floating reed-bed, but what many would now call a floating eyesore, and I can’t resist saying so once again).  This meant that the nest was very close to the main road and footpath and so easily seen.  We decided to keep this information to ourselves so as not to encourage unnecessary disturbance (I am of the opinion that our silence on discovering the nest site last year, it was in a very vulnerable position on that occasion, ensured that the second brood was a success, so I don’t deny silence can bring positive results), but of course anyone with any interest would in 2013 have easily seen the nest and the bird’s activity.  Perhaps not surprisingly many who pass this area just don’t look.  Some do of course and have kept watch on the grebes activity, none more so than Sam and myself.  I’m a little surprised as I’ve sat watching the activity at how many people have commented on ‘the ducks over there’ when referring to the grebes.  The good news with regard to the floating structure,  that is the council have a grant and intend to renew the reed-bed,  caused Sam and I  concern about the grebes welfare, as we knew this work was to begin at anytime.  We informed a council officer with whom we have trust in and we were assured that no work would begin until appropriate, thus the work has been delayed.  This promise, as I expected, has been kept.  Hopefully the eyesore will be dealt with in the coming weeks.

On the 5th July Sam and I watched grebes for about one hour during which time we saw nest building, display, the female lying in typical fashion on the nest inviting the male to mount, mating and best of all, the laying of the first egg!

And then there were five
We have continued to watch the grebes on a regular basis and the birds have been incubating five eggs.  Sam had the pleasure of finding the first chick on 30th/31st July and there were two chicks on 1st August.  On the 3rd August I was told by another onlooker that there were now three chicks although after an hour of watching I had seen only two, although only two eggs were still being incubated.  I don’t know where the third chick had been hiding, but on the 4th August I found the parent birds with four chicks and still incubating the fifth egg.

Mouths to feed

Gratefully accepted

 This pair of Great Crested Grebes are fortunately well used to the presence of humans and don’t seem too troubled by it.  Wildlife and humans can live close to each other without too much stress if common sense is used.  Sadly common sense is not always apparent.  I’m told that at least on one occasion some idiot with two dogs allowed them to chase Mute Swans in the lake nearby the nest.  A lady who had been watching the grebes tried to stop this and was met with a torrent of foul mouthed abuse from this ‘gentleman’.  This small lady clearly wasn’t going to be intimidated by this obviously ‘brave gentleman’ and his two dogs and so took his photograph.  Sadly Killingworth has its share of foul mouthed ‘brave gentlemen’ whose only defence when clearly in the wrong is to resort to foul language, shouting and intimidation.  Sounds a bit like schoolyard bullying behaviour or perhaps a scene from the House of Commons.

It was interesting to note that the pristine white eggs soon become stained.  To my eye making them look more attractive.  I’ve noted that even after the earlier chicks hatched that the male and /or the female bird continue to fetch weed to add to the nest.  Perhaps some of it is being used to cover the remaining eggs/egg.  The chicks seem to be well fed and at times don’t seem too interested in taking the small fish brought to them.  The parent bird at times seems to be acting in a confused manner, swimming to and from at the nest, but this seems to be the adults way of encouraging the chicks onto the water, in similar fashion that I have watched other birds encourage chicks to leave the nest and fly.

The 5th August saw almost constant and at times torrential rain fall so I shall visit again on the 6th August.  The rain only became heavier and by tea-time the paths outside were flooded.  Sam informed me that the lake was flooded.  Now he’s in Dumfries at the moment and knew more about the patch than I did!  By mid evening the rain had cleared and the sky brightened so I decided not to wait until a new day and I made for the lake.  I’m so pleased I made the decision as there were maybe eighty to one hundred Swifts taking some of the many insects in flight as a Grey Heron stood at the corner of the lake.  I made for the Great Crested Grebe nest and saw that there were no birds there.  The last egg had hatched.  I caught sight of the pair of grebes in the centre of the larger lake and I could see that there were youngsters on one of the birds backs.  I did get a bit closer.  I believe it was the male preening and the female carrying the young.  They’d made a wise move to the centre of what was a very flooded lake after the heavy downfalls of rain.   I walked home deciding to try and check numbers tomorrow.  I was rewarded with one of the best sunsets I have ever seen over the lake and I took some images to prove it (shown in a previous posting on this blog) as did another photographer who had been wise enough to realise what might occur once the rains had cleared.  What a wonderful summer 2013 has provided.

Keeping busy

Then there were four

Having now visited on the 6th August and found the adult grebes with four juveniles I think that the fifth chick may have perished.  The Grey Heron is paying close attention to the area, but I think the likely cause may have been the weather.  It was good to find four healthy chicks, the first to hatch looking considerably larger than its siblings.

I was able to confirm for definite that four of the juvenile grebes have so far survived.  I watched as all fours changed from the back of one parent bird to the other as the sun shone onto the lake.  There has been two days of dry sunny weather since the torrential rain.  There seems to be plenty of small fish being taken to the young.  Good to see that on 13th August the family were together at the nest site with the four youngsters being fed and growing quickly.

You can do it

Down it goes
A rather long blog this time for which I’ll make no apology.  Perhaps the nest is not in picturesque surroundings but it is the success of the pair that matters.  If you’ve got to the end I hope that you enjoyed it as much as Sam and I have enjoyed watching the Great Crested Grebes over the years.