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Great Crested Grebes

A guest blog by Sam Hood

Sometimes the most amazing wildlife can be found right on our doorstep, in our latest guest blog, North East naturalist and photographer Sam Hood introduces us to the stunning Great Crested Grebe.

At the start of March just before lockdown commenced, I found myself looking out over my relatively urban local patch in North Tyneside. It was a mild Spring morning, the mirror calm, tan coloured reflection produced by the small reedbed that sits afront of the local leisure centre being broken only by the distinctive outline of one of my favourite birds.  Sitting on a small concrete wall, the sound of traffic streaming past behind my back produced a low, constant hum. Runners, dog walkers and cyclists passed behind on a narrow strip of tarmac. Lifting my binoculars to my eyes I found the din of the urban world behind me fade slightly as I set my eyes upon a species I’ve watched for many years. 

A dagger sharp bill projecting from a peaked head, adorned with an encompassing, elegantly plumed tuft, pierced by a centrally positioned glinting ruby-red eye. The sleek off-white, elongated and slightly curved neck falls down into a shallow dark body held flat, it’s outline barely perforating the water’s mirror like surface. Elegant, graceful, stunning, the list of synonyms available to use when describing a Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) are exhaustive. Much of this bird’s appeal lies in its aesthetic appearance, they are a truly beautiful bird to look at. In fact, they are beautiful to a fault. The very beauty that can captivate the human observer was very nearly also the species’ downfall. The hunting of Great Crested Grebe for their “furs and tibbets” in order to feed the insatiable appetite for ornamental plumes as decoration for the hats of the Victorian lady led to the British population being reduced to under 50 pairs in the mid-nineteenth century.  Similar declines occurred throughout continental Europe with the fashion not being endemic to our island shores. 

My love of watching Great Crested Grebes’ goes back over 11 years. The months of February and March have long held a tinge of excitement for me, this is when I usually see the return of Great Crested Grebes to my patch; Killingworth Lake. The core element of my patch is made up of two shallow, man-made lakes separated from each other by a causeway carrying a main road. Formed in the 1960’s during the building of the planned “new town” the two lakes have a very recent provenance. Unsuitable for development owing to the boggy nature of the site combined with the issue of subsidence (stemming from being situated above an old pithead!) the area was transformed into a recreational boating lake. Man-made, relatively shallow, vertically sided and surrounded by suburbia. From an ecological stand-point, not the most auspicious of starts! The two lakes however provide everything required by a Great Crested Grebe; water, plentiful supplies of fish and reedbed.

 It was in fact similar man-made habitats that helped to save the Great Crested Grebe from the brink of oblivion. Perversely the increased building of roads across Britain helped to resurrect the species. The need for gravel for the burgeoning road system led to industrial gravel extraction from gravel pits. Often naturally filling with water after the industrial life of the pit had passed, encroaching vegetation (including reeds) and the tendency for these sites to be stocked with fish for angling was a boon for the Great Crested Grebe. The post-industrial use of these locations helped to create a network of sites across Britain that provided ideal conditions for Great Crested Grebes to breed. 

Great Crested Grebes were the first species I really endeavoured to watch and photograph at great length. The period when the birds are displaying always attracts visitors and photographers alike the two lakes. A pair of Great Crested Grebes displaying is the photograph most wildlife photographers want of this iconic species. It was during the nesting stage however that I tended to get the most out of watching and photographing the birds. The birds being a stone’s throw away from my home meant for a number of years I would visit the lakes daily to watch the birds and to check on their progress. For a couple of years (and particularly in 2015) I spent several hours nearly every day watching and photographing a pair from the start to eventual finish of their breeding season. 

Watching and observing the bird’s habits and routines was and still is some of the most rewarding time I have ever spent. Being “Intune” with the birds and over time earning an almost intrinsic knowledge of where the birds preferred to feed, which “routes” they would take across the lake and knowing how long they would be away from the nest before returning to change duties at the nest was massively rewarding. This all greatly improved my fieldcraft and gave me a great appreciation of how much enjoyment can be had from the simple act of observing a single species. 

With the current lockdown still in force, now is a fantastic opportunity to take a really in depth look at a single species close to home (I’ve taken to House Sparrows over Grebes for the moment!) as it offers the chance to really gain an understanding of a species or at least an aspect of their life which I have found hugely rewarding. 

by Sam Hood

Discover more of Sam’s beautiful images at projects on Instagram and Facebook:

www.instagram.com/saminthewild22

www.facebook.com/SamuelHoodPhotography

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