Way back in the nineteenth century, great crested grebes came very close to extinction in Britain and by 1860, their numbers were down to a mere forty-two pairs having previously been widely distributed. Their ‘crime’ was to be the possessors of fine plumage, especially the chestnut coloured frill of cheek feathers as well as the soft white body plumage, which were much in demand by Victorian milliners and dressmakers.
Accordingly, grebes were slaughtered willy-nilly just so that their feathers could adorn ladies’ hats and dresses! However, eventually a band of ladies got together determined to put an end to this deadly trade. They called themselves, the ‘Fur, Fin and Feather Folk’! In 1889, this transmogrified into the Society for the Protection of Birds which, in 1904, was given royal approval by Edward Vll and become the RSPB.
The activities of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk in the nineteenth century led to an Act of Parliament, the Bird Protection Act of 1867, to protect birds from this unnecessary slaughter and the effects were striking. 0n a reservoir at Tring in Hertfordshire in 1867, there was but a single pair of grebes but after the introduction of the act, there were seventy-five pairs by 1884!
Since then, such has become the universal interest in wildlife, and birds especially, that this organisation currently has over a million members and has established a range of reserves in different habitats throughout the UK to further its work of conservation. With such a large membership, the RSPB also is heeded by politicians thus ensuring that the conservation ethic is foremost in the minds of the decision makers. Although, in the present circumstances, access to its reserves is of course severely restricted, the valuable work continues unabated but without access to public funds such as donations at their reserves, charities like this are beginning to lose ground and are suffering financially.
Now, the great crested grebe flourishes once more albeit that it is a bird which largely restricts itself to lowland waters and is not a Highlander. I well remember watching a grebe in a lovely lowland lochan on a regular basis. I was able to see it from the high point of a sharply rising bank and was able to admire the bird’s amazing ability when it swam below the surface of what was a crystal-clear stretch of water. Grebes may be modest flyers, requiring quite long stretches of water to become airborne and are exceedingly clumsy on terra firma, a fact that earns them the sobriquet of ‘arsefoot’. Their feet are set back so far on their bodies that the nickname is indeed apposite. On land the birds are, to all intents and purposes, pretty helpless and are, however, at their very best when diving and pursuing small fish below the water’s surface - supreme sub-mariners. Such are their limitations on the ground that they usually build floating nests in reed beds close to the shore to which access is gained exclusively from the water itself.
Because it spends so much of its time hunting fish under water, the great crested grebe is widely known as a ‘doucker’, a ‘crested doucker’ in East Lothian, a ‘horned doucker’ elsewhere and in the west of Ireland, a ‘greater loon’. At the time that they were being used by milliners and dress designers, a cotton cloth known as ‘grebe fur’ was manufactured. The soft white body plumage of grebes had already become popular for trimmings on ladies’ dresses and hats and with the production of this artificial cotton material, the bird also became known as a ‘satin grebe’, although the cloth, initially imported from abroad, had nothing whatsoever to do with grebes!
Grebes are familiar on our local loch, arriving here in the early spring from the salt waters off the east coast, where they winter. But grebes have another claim to fame. In 1914, also at Tring, Julian Huxley, the eminent scientist, made a study of their fascinating courtship behaviour which was to become a standard reference. There is repeatedly, much head shaking, which seems to be a part of any grebe relationship but when they are courting really earnestly, they put on a performance reminiscent of some watery ballet. Both birds initially dive in order to retrieve water weed which is then held in the beak as the two birds approach each other head on, heads wagging vigorously. They meet chest to chest and with frantic paddling rise until only their rear ends remain in the water. This is grebe courtship at its most intense.
With fishing currently suspended due to the onset of Covid-19, the grebes and many other waterfowl have the waters of the loch to themselves. Thus, they are totally undisturbed and able to get on with their lives without interference. As might be expected, the loch also has a burgeoning population of mallard and indeed in recent days, I have seen little posses of mallard sloping off to the surrounding fields doubtless with breeding intentions. There are also goosanders, tufted duck and a colony of Canada geese plus a motley collection of gulls.
The proliferation of Canada geese throughout Scotland is not necessarily welcome. They were introduced from Canada centuries ago to decorate newly designed estate lakes mostly in England but they subsequently went feral. Their migratory instincts persuaded them to move northwards at the end of the summer to the Moray Firth for the moult and doubtless as they overflew parts of Scotland, they recognized opportunities to settle. Consequently, their numbers have gradually grown and grown and it is said that four Canada geese can consume as much grass as a single sheep so, not surprisingly, they are pretty unpopular with farmers
The shoreline of the loch is fished by herons, the depths by ospreys, so there is always something on the move. Currently, the ospreys are sitting on eggs, and the males are doing most of the fishing to keep the sitting hens supplied with a constant supply of scaly food. Although there are no fisher folk trying to lure trout from the waters with their remarkable collections of artificial flies, there are still the herons, ospreys and occasionally otters to keep the fish moving. However, the goldeneye that winter here have now departed for their breeding grounds north and east of here in Scandinavia and even as far away as northern Russia. The pink-feet have also gone, bound for Arctic regions.
Meanwhile, the grebes continue to display. Sometimes they will simply swim towards each other, shaking their heads and crowing before, breast to breast, they rear up again in the water. These submariners only take very small fish, which they pursue underwater with alacrity. Hence, they are not seen to pose any kind of threat to fisheries whereas the goosanders are disliked by the angling fraternity for taking young trout and salmon. They too exploit their diving ability to catch their fish beneath the water’s surface.
Until restrictions are lifted, all of these spectacular events will of course, go largely unnoticed. The loch these days is indeed a quiet place!