Girton Birdwatch - September 2013
There are certain birds that we tend to take for granted no matter how beautiful or intrinsically interesting they might appear to be: the lapwing is one, while the great crested grebe might also be said to fall into the same category. Visit any stretch of inland open water in Britain (Milton Pits, for example), in any season, and we are likely to encounter this strikingly attractive bird. We may also be lucky, in the spring, to witness its courtship display. This has several components but probably the most dramatic is the weed ceremony which takes the form of a classic pas-de-deux where the two birds rise up off the surface of the water and tread water - often travelling impressive distances - with their necks craned and their breasts pressed together while offerings of weed dangle from their beaks. So familiar is the great crested grebe that it is sometimes just called 'the grebe' by those with just a passing interest in birds, although there are several other members of the family: the quite common and well-known little grebe (also referred to as the dabchick), the slavonian grebe, the red-necked grebe (not known to breed here), the pied-billed grebe (the rarest, only recorded here about 30 times) and the black-necked grebe, the bird which has prompted me to write this as recently it has been seen 'locally'. However, before leaving the great crested grebe it's worth noting that despite its ubiquity now, not so long ago it was one of Britain's rarest breeding species which, during the 19th century, was all but exterminated because of its misfortune, like the little egret, to supply a demand of fashion. Grebe feathers were used to decorate women's hats. The dense feathering on the bird's body, so dense it became known as 'grebe fur' and a suggested substitute for animal fur, became recognised as a perfect fabric for muffs and shoulder capes as well as hats. At one time there were believed to be a mere 42 pairs left in England. Their relative abundance nowadays is rightly regarded as one of the great triumphs of the bird protection movement, epitomised in the development of the RSPB.
Ironically, the great crested grebe's recovery was also aided by those twin 'evils' of habitat destruction, road construction and house building, which did so much damage to other species. The rapid rise in car ownership in the late 50s and early 60s, the corresponding rapid expansion of the road system, and the not unrelated increase in house building, led to massive demands for the associated building materials - for example, each house, with infrastructure, was estimated to need 100 tonnes of gravel. Once the required alluvial gravel had been extracted the pits flooded and one of the chief beneficiaries of this inadvertent habitat creation was the great crested grebe. We are fortunate to have the Fen Drayton and Milton Pits on our doorstep. Incidentally, a great white egret, which I mentioned last month, was to be seen on the Cam Washes has, since 31st July, been regularly observed at Fen Drayton lakes (still present on 10th August). A bird has also been seen at Wicken Fen on the same dates, and at the same time (more or less!), so we seem to have had at least two of these dramatic birds touring the neighbourhood.
The Cam Washes are also playing host to a black-necked grebe. First seen (by Dave Heath and son) on 4th August it was still there on the 12th. This small bird (it's about 12 inches long) is easily identifiable in its breeding plumage by its black neck and face and the golden-chestnut tuft of feathers fanning out behind its eyes. It's the eyes which probably constitute its most amazing features as they are an almost supernaturally intense red, so much so that old naturalists dubbed the bird the 'Firey Eye'. The bird reported from the Cam Washes is a juvenile which is in itself significant. Although, in small numbers, it's a routine winter visitor to British coastlines it is still a very rare breeding bird here, so the presence of a juvenile on the Washes might be indicative of breeding success. If that is the case the local birding 'authorities' will, quite understandably, be keeping very quiet about the exact location in case the birds return in the future.
On Monday 5th August a male hen harrier was seen from the Guided Busway near Oakington, which is very gratifying as this, and the redstart and wheatear at Fen Drayton, not to mention the abundant wild flowers along the route, seems to indicate the success of this controversial addition to the local scene in establishing itself as a wildlife corridor. After cycling the route to St Ives and joining the main thoroughfare again, one is immediately struck by the petrol and diesel fumes on the air that the Busway had insulated you from (the buses themselves being run on bio-fuel).