Grebes and glacial weather
Grebes and glacial weather
Oh, the miracle of new spectacles! I’ve just been prescribed a pair for watching television, and the sudden coming into focus of all those slightly blurred faces is a revelation. And it doesn’t end there.
Gazing out of the window I focussed in on one of the goldfinches on the feeder and, for the first time, noticed that its facial marking was unusual. Juveniles take a while to develop that dramatic patterning of red, white and black, but this was something else – the black marking encroached onto where the red should be.
Just a rare individual variation, like the jackdaw with the white stippling on its flanks or the blackbird with a white wing flash, but one that enables me to recognise this particular visitor. Quite small variations can be vitally important to the keen bird-watcher. Last December, the Otley Wetlands Reserve had a rare visitor – a black-necked grebe – that stayed long enough for everyone interested to get a good look at it.
In the UK we have two common grebes – the great-crested with its long neck and elegantly plumed head, easy to see at this time of year on most of our pools and reservoirs, and the little grebe or dabchick. This shy dumpy little bird is also plentiful in Wharfedale – on rivers as well as ponds and lakes – but rather trickier to see as, when disturbed, it immediately dives and makes its way to cover underwater, often vanishing before you can raise your binoculars.
I tend to assume that any small grebe I glimpse is a dabchick. They generally are, but how wrong I should have been if I’d been the one to spot our Otley visitor. More expert ornithologists might have identified it as the much rarer Slavonian grebe – examples of which do turn up occasionally in our region though the small breeding population is restricted to the north of Scotland.
The fact is that, in summer there are striking differences, but in winter plumage differentiating the rare Slavonian from the even rarer black-necked is a matter of very fine detail. The head is more domed and the dark face-patch a slightly different shape. How fortunate that experts were at hand, and now we have a new record for the Reserve.
Though it makes it difficult to get out and about in the countryside, the hard winter weather is bringing all kinds of rarer visitors to our gardens.
My sister in Scotland had a woodcock foraging under her seed feeder last week, a bird which usually skulks deep in the woods where its striped and dappled brown plumage makes it virtually invisible among the leaf litter.
Nothing so spectacular here, but my sharpened sight enabled me to identify a small grey-brown robin-shaped bird, mousing among the shrubs by the fence, as a female blackcap – one of the increasing number of warblers choosing not to fly south for the winter. Not a good decision this year, I fear.