Saturday, 9 November 2013

The wing of a Song Thrush, but the weight of three

We had an interesting capture at our wader mist netting session in Dublin Bay the other night – a Little Grebe! 

Some people call them Dabchicks (which happens to be the only bird name to have the first three letters of the alphabet occurring consecutively!), Shakespeare called them Dive-dappers, but I prefer Ducky-divers. Anyway, I flushed one while setting up the net at dusk, but I didn’t think for a second that we would be ringing one later on.

Grebes are fascinating birds: they build floating nests, which they cover with vegetation before leaving, carry their chicks on their back and pluck their own feathers and feed them to their young! And they’re quite interesting birds in the hand too.  

Little Grebe in winter plumage Clive Timmons

The short wings look like they are just about capable of dragging the rotund body from the water to splatter along the surface, but the legs and feet really are something to behold. They are disproportionately large, and placed well back on the body. While this makes them good swimmers and expert divers, it also makes them very ungainly on land. This, coupled with their small wing area, means that they are unable to take off from land. The tarsi are laterally flattened and have serrated hind edges, the front toes are separately lobed, and the claws are flat and nail-like. Another interesting feature is the tail: a bunch of wispy feathers that are no more than a token of a tail.

So you wouldn’t expect these short-winged, plump, almost tailless birds to be seasoned travellers. And you’d be right, they’re not, but check out this map of the journey of a Latvian Little Grebe. He was ringed on the nest in Latvia in June 1983 and was shot in Lancashire in January 1985 after travelling a (straight line) distance of 1,653 km! 

Recovery map for a Latvian Little Grebe
that turned up in the UK

I know I mentioned wader mist netting at the top of this post. Not much to report just yet, but watch this space...