Saturday, 7 April 2007

Fiery-eyed imp drops by

The lake at Livermere, which lies north of Bury St Edmunds and just over the border into Suffolk, has a reputation for attracting some of our less common birds during the spring migration. This may be a consequence of it being the only really large water body in the area. The lake itself sits within a surprisingly open landscape and it is possible to view most of the lake and its margins from just one or two points. A number of colleagues from work make regular visits during their lunch breaks and from time to time turn up something unusual. Just last week a black-necked grebe was found and this prompted me to make an evening visit to see this delightful bird.

In size, the black-necked grebe is intermediate between the dabchick or little grebe and the familiar great-crested grebe. It has a rounded, almost dumpy, body, with what can only be described as a powder-puff rear end. This powder-puff, which extends from the flanks towards the rear, is off-white or dirty grey in winter but during the summer it is replaced by a deep russet-brown. The rest of the body is black, except for a drooping fan of yellow feathers that extend from behind the fiery red eye and the whole effect suggests an impish character. The pointed bill appears to turn upwards at the tip, but this is an illusion, created by an abrupt narrowing of the lower mandible. Such a distinctive bird was easy to pick out from the various ducks, geese and gulls and I was soon able to watch it diving for food. I was struck by the buoyancy of the grebe. It sat very high on the water, almost as if it were a ball of cork, yet it was able to dive readily.

The black-necked grebe has a very interesting history in this country. Although it has a huge global distribution, Britain sits at the northernmost edge of its wintering range and has only a small breeding population. Although it is generally accepted that the species was first recorded breeding here in 1904, there is an intriguing piece of text from a manuscript written in 1771 by Pennant. This describes what seems likely to have been black-necked grebes breeding in the fens near Spalding. However, Pennant died in 1798 – some 60 years before the black-necked grebe was officially recognised as being a different species to the superficially similar slavonian grebe – and we cannot be certain of his identification. A few dozen pairs now breed annually in Britain, although those visiting East Anglia do so either in winter or on passage between wintering and breeding grounds. 

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