At a BirdLife Malta nature reserve last week, I watched three black-necked grebes swimming and diving in glorious Mediterranean sunshine.
The species once had a special relationship with Ireland; a County Roscommon turlough held Europe’s largest breeding colony of these birds until the march of progress, in the newly created Irish Free State, destroyed it.
What a tragedy the famous colony is gone; the black-necked grebe was one of our most glamorous birds.
Ghadira Nature Reserve is a five hectare bird haven near the northern tip of Malta. A shallow brackish lake, surrounded by pine trees and bushes, attracts song-birds waders and waterfowl.
Tall fences give the impression of a place under siege; BirdLife Malta and the country’s powerful shooting lobby are mortal enemies.
Hunters have broken into the reserve to kill the birds. Oil has been poured into the pools to contaminate feathers and destroy the ecosystem.
The reserve, open to the public only at weekends, has two strategically placed hides.
Little ringed plovers breed. Chiffchaffs, black redstarts, and house martins newly arrived from Africa, provided the soundtrack on Sunday. A water rail ventured out into the open in broad daylight, something I have never seen an Irish one do.
But the celebrity birds were the grebes.
These moorhen-sized visitors were in their sober winter plumage. Soon they will don their glorious breeding attire.
The head neck and back will remain black but the breast, belly and ‘powder-puff’ rump will take on a rich chestnut hue. Golden fan-like tufts will protrude from behind the bright red eyes.
The tufts give the bird its American name; ‘eared grebe’. As in all grebes, the legs are set so far back on the body that moving about on land is difficult.
‘Podiceps’, the generic name for the grebe family, means ‘backside footed’.
A hundred years ago, the black-necked grebe began a brief, but intense, love affair with Ireland.
There had been only 21 sightings of the bird here during the 19th Century and nesting had never been recorded.
In 1906, a pair tried to breed at Keel Lake, Achill.
Parents with three downy young were seen at Briarsfield turlough, County Roscommon, in 1915. Soon, grebes were breeding at several locations in the west.
In 1929, nests were discovered at Lough Funshinagh, a County Roscommon turlough. By 1932, there were 300 pairs there.
The black-necked grebe is a rather temperamental creature, apt to change its breeding location if everything isn’t entirely to its liking.
Turloughs, with their notorious habit of disappearing down a swallow hole from time to time, seem unlikely places for such pernickety birds to nest.
‘Nature was in the mood for magic in County Roscommon on Monday when, sharp at 12 noon, Lough Funshinagh, with a farewell roar, completely disappeared’ declared the Westmeath Independent in 1955. On November 22 of that year ‘swans geese, and thousands of fish, suddenly found themselves without any water’.
The departure of the grebes from Funshinagh, however, is usually blamed on local drainage measures and on the development of the Shannon hydroelectric scheme which affected the water table from 1934 onwards.
The Briarsfield turlough, which had up to 15 nesting pairs, was drained in 1957.
Nowadays, black-necked grebes visit Ireland occasionally in winter and, very rarely, a single nest is recorded.
Only a dozen or so birds have been ringed in the British and Irish scheme. None of the rings has been reported subsequently so we don’t know where the stragglers visiting our shores, come from.
The species’ range extends from Europe to Western Asia. Indeed, black-necks are found in every continent except Australasia and Antarctica. The isolated South African population has become a distinct race.
Black-necks don’t breed at Ghadira; the trio will head northwards to spend the summer in mainland Europe or Russia, if they are lucky.
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