Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 7


FROM the standpoint of the London and south-country ornithologist Cheshire is not a good county for birds. But if it cannot compare with certain eastern and southern counties, with coastwise areas of considerable size, in the number of rare and accidental wanderer; which are included, with or without justification, in the avian fauna, it has a large and varied bird population. Within the county boundaries are hills with extensive moorlands, marsh and bog, extensive grazing land with numerous woods and coverts, a Royal forest, and a coastline, short it is true, but including sandhills, estuarine mudflats, and saltings. Best of all the whole county is well watered, and that means insect life in abundance, the great attraction for many birds; rivers, streams, innumerable ponds or "pits" as they are locally called, cross and dot the cultivated land, and there are very many larger waters, known as meres. It is, perhaps, these meres which account for the majority of the interesting Cheshire birds, and no bird is more characteristic of the meres, and of the county, than the great crested grebe. Many students of bird life believe that in Norfolk only is this bird common, though, as a matter of fact, this grebe leaves the Broads in winter, whereas in Cheshire, Shropshire, Yorkshire, and perhaps other haunts it is an all-year resident.

It is true that I have had no lengthy experience of the Broads, but whenever I have been there in summer I have been surprised at the comparative scarcity of grebes on these much-talked-of waters. In England, without doubt, Cheshire and Shropshire are the headquarters of the great crested grebe, though now that the bird is rapidly extending its range, other counties are well populated. Thomas Pennant, a Flintshire man, describes it thus at the end of the eighteenth century: "These birds frequent the meres of Shropshire and Cheshire, where they breed, and the great East Fen in Lincolnshire, where they are called Gaunts." Montagu copied this distribution, but most later writers, though referring to Lincolnshire, ignored the other two areas; Cheshire, to many a southerner, is still an unknown country, wild and uncivilised, inhabited by country boors or, in the industrial portions, by barbarous sons of toil! Can any good thing exist in Cheshire? they ask.

About the middle of the last century the grebes in Cheshire, as elsewhere, had a tough struggle for existence; they were persecuted unmercifully for their plumage. How much this exploitation of the unfortunate bird for its silky breast had to do with one of its names—the tippet grebe—is uncertain. In summer it wears a trill which is often described as its tippet; nevertheless the "grebe fur" was used for an article of feminine attire known as a tippet, and once the bird had earned the name, tippet may have been transferred to its own neck adornment. When the price of the deceased grebe had risen to about a pound Bird Protection came to the rescue and accomplished much, but in Cheshire private rather than public efforts saved the situation. Most of the meres on which they nest are on game preserves, and the bird, though not on the game list, received passive but very effective protection.

The great crested grebe, the largest of its family, is a handsome but rather peculiar-looking fowl. Though a bird of the water it is in no way a duck, and is more nearly related to the divers. It is a little smaller and very

Bird Haunts and Nature Memories - p 73.png

The female is sitting; the male has a newly hatched young bird on his back. The nest on the left is that of a Coot.

much slighter in build than the mallard or common wild duck; in build it is not specially a surface swimmer, but is excellently adapted for rapid progress under water. When a grebe wishes to travel swiftly from one part of the water to another it dives, swimming under water. A bird which feeds on fish must be cigar- or torpedo-shaped in order to capture its swift prey; there are no bluff bows, projecting elbows, or other obstructions on the body of the diving grebe. The general colour scheme is brown above, white beneath, but in summer the head and neck are ornamented; the dark brown crest has two elongations, known, somewhat misleadingly, as "ear tufts," though they have nothing to do with the ears. A chestnut trill or ruff surrounds the upper part of the long and slender neck; this is the tippet. Pennant, who thought that the tippet grebe was a distinct species, says: "This species has been shot on Rosterne Mere in Cheshire; it is rather scarce in England, but is common in the winter time on the Lake of Geneva, where they appear in flocks of ten or twelve, and are killed for the sake of their beautiful skins. The underside of them, being dressed with the feathers on, are made into muffs and tippets; each bird sells for about fourteen shillings." For diagnostic characters he states that this species is rather smaller, lacks crest and ruff, and "the sides of the neck are striped downwards from the head with narrow lines of black and white." It is evident that Pennant's Rostherne bird was immature, still having the striped neck markings which are characteristic of all young grebes. The trill and full tufts are lost in winter, though indication of the latter can be seen at all seasons on mature birds. Thus Pennant's tippet grebe was without tippet; it was the silvery breast, suitable for tippets, which gave it the name.

The adaptability of the grebe for rapid subaqueous motion is not confined to its general shape, but is specially noticeable in its feet and legs. It is not strictly web-footed like a duck or gull; the toes are distinct but are broadened out or lobed, whilst, in the same way, the tarsus or leg is flattened and broad. The grebe does not paddle through the water with alternate strokes, but, at any rate when travelling quickly, rows itself along, the legs striking out sideways and not beneath the plane of the body. Set far back, the legs are further furnished with special rotatory muscles; in the forward swing the bird "feathers under water," turning the tarsus and lobed foot so as to present as little resistance as possible to the water, cutting it with the narrow cutting edge In the back stroke the lobed toes are turned, spread so as to give a bigger surface; foot and tarsus grip the water. So freely do bone and muscle work that the bird can easily raise a foot above its back; often, when a grebe is lazily swimming on the surface, head resting on the back, it will raise and shake a foot above its back.

In one big and generally correct work on British birds, published not very long ago, it is definitely stated that the grebes leave fresh water for the sea in November and return in February. This, I believe, is the case in Norfolk, and even in Cheshire there is a certain amount of movement, especially amongst birds of the year, but the meres are only deserted entirely when they are frozen. There are always a few birds about in December and January if the water is open, and often there are many together, for the grebe is gregarious in winter. Some of the Cheshire birds go to the coast in late autumn, and there is always a noticeable increase of returning birds in flocks.

In the same book it is stated that "the wing beat is not unlike that of a duck, and they strike the water on alighting in similar fashion." This is exactly what they do not do. Anyone who has watched ducks alighting, or has studied the beautiful drawings of such bird artists as Thorburn and Lodge, must have seen that the duck when near the water throws its head, neck, and shoulders back and its tail and feet forward, checking its pace with its wings, so that it actually impinges with the feet first. The grebe flies with the head and neck a little lower than the plane of the body, in that way resembling divers rather than ducks, but when about to alight, slightly elevates~both neck and feet, which trail well behind; it strikes the water with its breast, causing a considerable wave. When avoiding danger the bird seldom flies; if suspicious it sinks the body, so that almost the whole of the back is submerged—it often swims with the lower neck awash—and if threatened dives, travelling to safety under water. The statement that it seldom flies is, however, erroneous; during courtship, and at other times, the grebe flies swiftly and frequently; it also moves from mere to mere and to and from salt water.

Courtship is a complicated affair which has been described at considerable length, but the sequence of the various actions is by no means always the same. The male bird, very early in the season, and occasionally in autumn, pays attentions to his mate or would~be mate, swimming towards her with his long neck and spear-shaped bill stretched out along the water. He has many deep croaking remarks to make, and in spring a loud, repeated call—jik, jik, jik. When the pair meet they both raise themselves in the water, sitting up on the hinder part of the body where there is the merest apology for a tail. Stretching the long necks upward, and with the heads at right angles, they gently fence with their bills, and vary this by occasional strange head dips, usually simultaneous in the two birds. The necks seem to double under, the back of the heads reaching nearly to, if not actually touching, the wings; but the action is rapid and the necks are at once raised again. A favourite suggestion that it is getting near nesting time is made by the male, who dives for submerged weed, and bringing up a strand waves it in front of his lady. Sometimes, but not often, the male approaches with the ear tufts drooping, and usually with depressed frill, but during the bill kissing, ear tufts are erected, frill fully expanded, so that it stands out, framing the curious Japanese face.

The nest of the grebe, on most of the Cheshire mares, is placed amongst reeds or other aquatic vegetation; it may be in a lily bed, or where vegetation is absent, as on some of the upland reservoirs, on a floating branch or drifted sticks and rubbish. It usually, though not invariably, is afloat, anchored by its surroundings, but it is so slight a structure, rotting weeds and rubbish, that it rocks on any ripple. A simple wet platform, it rises and falls according to the varying height of the water; though soaked and sodden, the eggs do not seem to suffer from their moist setting. When the bird leaves the nest it covers the eggs with a few bits of weed, and in a short time their chalky white surface absorbs the green of the nest and covering so that they become permanently stained with blotches of green and brown. Undoubtedly these nests, warmed by fermentation of the rotting weeds, produce considerable heat, and it has been suggested that this aids incubation; this may be true, but the birds do not leave them to their fate, but sit closely, both parents taking a share of incubating duties. When a sitting bird is disturbed, it rises on the nest and with a few rapid passes covers the eggs with some of the nesting material; then, in a second, it enters the water and dives.

When it first leaves the egg the tiny grebe is a beautiful little creature, striped with brown and white down, and with a small triangular patch of bare crimson skin on its head. One of its first efforts is to leave its sodden home

Bird Haunts and Nature Memories - p 76b.png


and climb to the warm, dry back of its parent, but it can swim as soon as it has left the shell if necessary. Certainly, for some time, it seems to object to the water, and whenever it can it seeks the parental steed, snuggling down in the cradle formed by the slightly elevated wings. It has often been stated that the parent bird, if danger threatens, takes the young down beneath its wings, but I have never seen this done. When the young is on the back it can be held in place by the paternal or maternal scapulars or wings, but as a rule the little one, when not so held, comes bobbing up, astonished and doubtless much annoyed, when its parent has given it an unexpected ducking. At all times it is very much a mother's spoilt baby, following her about with incessant squeaky demands for attention. As it grows it gets a little more independence, but it is quite as big as the adult bird before it ceases this continuous call for food. Its early dives are very superficial, and it may be traced as it swims for a few yards under water by the ripple on the surface. Belated nesting is too frequent on the meres, where early broods frequently meet with disaster; it is no uncommon sight to see young birds still squeaking after their betters in September or October. Egg-robbing by boys, and, in spite of the careful covering, by jays, crows, and other birds, doubtless explains the failure of many an early brood; but when the young are hatched they are in even greater danger from the pike which lurk in the reeds close to their floating domicile. Four eggs is common—one young bird, a survivor, only too frequent. And yet the great crested grebe holds its own on the pike-haunted Cheshire waters, and twenty or thirty birds, even more, are not infrequent on the water; on one mere, at any rate, a dozen or a score of nests might be discovered in its reedy marginal belt. The bird is certainly not diminishing in numbers in this its ancient home.