Water birds make a splash

CLOSE to where I live a community group has leased a piece of cutaway bog from Bórd na Mona in order to develop it as a biodiversity park.

Last year the drains were blocked and, over the winter, a number of ponds and small lakes appeared.

The first three species of water bird to colonise the new ponds were mute swans, mallard and, slightly less predictably, little grebes. I have been seeing little grebes a lot more often in recent years and I get the impression that their numbers are increasing. I certainly hope so because they are delightful birds.

A tiny water bird, considerably smaller than a water hen, with a distinctly rounded shape. This is partly because they retain a lot of air in their plumage to provide insulation and buoyancy. In the distance, seen against the water, they appear black but at close range the colouring is much more subtle and at this time of year, as the breeding season approaches, they develop chestnut necks which can shine like bronze in the sunshine.

Another name for them is the dabchick. The ‘chick’ part refers to the fact that their fluffy, round shape makes them look like an immature water bird and the ‘dab’ part describes the slightly unusual way they dive, rather like a human taking off from a diving board. They dive a lot. There are two reasons for this. The first is defensive. If anything alarms them, and they’re very wary birds. they hide underwater. They often swim a considerable distance and are experts at re-surfacing in an unexpected place, often in thick vegetation. They also use their necks like a submarine’s periscope to have a look around before the rest of the body surfaces.

The other reason for diving is to hunt. Grebes are fish eaters but the little grebe, being very little, can only cope with the smallest fry and the bulk of its diet is made up of tadpoles, aquatic larvae and water snails.

The new lakes on the cutaway have no fish in them yet. But things like water beetles and other aquatic insects, which have a winged phase in their life cycle, have already colonised it. And to judge by the amount of mating activity going on at present, they’ll soon be stuffed with the tadpoles of frogs and newts.

Little grebes build floating nests of vegetation, usually in reed beds, but not before May. When they’re not on the nest they cover the eggs with vegetation, and when they return to incubate they festoon themselves with the same vegetation as camouflage.

When the chicks hatch, there are usually only one or two of them, the parents often swim around with the young on their backs.


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