Black Necked Grebes

St Aidans country park near Leeds is home to around 25% of the UK’s breeding black necked grebes so a must to visit in Spring. The site was until 2002 a huge opencast mine but once mining finished and after some arguments about land ownership it was taken on by the RSPB as it’s latest site.

The first thing you notice on arrival at the site and it’s pretty hard to miss, is Oddball a preserved walking dragline which was used to strip mine the coal from the surface. And it’s huge. It is also currently the nest site of a pair of kestrels and little owls have also nested among this monolith from our recent past.

Oddball at St Aidans

┬ęChris Allen

The black necked grebes are a small diving bird feeding on insects and crustaceans. They are one of the most inefficient fliers and almost seem to avoid flying unless absolutely necessary. For around 2 months a year during their moult they are flightless, however they do migrate around 3,700 miles to breed.

Black necked grebe

Black necked grebe

The first thing you notice is their incredible striking red eyes and the tawny coloured ear tufts. When courting they will display to each other rising out of the water and calling. They will breed from April building a nest amongst the reeds and will lay 3-4 eggs. However there is evidence that birds will lay eggs in other nests, a practice known as brood parasitism and similar to the behaviour of cuckoos!

The black grebes striking red eyes.

The black grebes striking red eyes.

The nest is often built in a colony or in amongst other breeding birds. At St Aidans they nest amongst the large black headed gull colony which offers protection from predators who will be mobbed by the gulls if coming too close.

Black headed gulls

Black headed gulls offer predator alerts

Once hatched the grebes leave the nest and although chicks can dive and swim, for the first few days they will be transported around on the parents back. Once competent on the water the parents split up the youngsters taking care of their own half.

Black necked grebe pair

Black necked grebe pair

Although a rare breeding bird in the UK there numbers worldwide are good and these stunning water birds are not currently under threat.

Chasing away a rival

Chasing away a rival

 

 

Curlew

Last year I promised that I would spend more time out on the moors which make up a lot of the higher ground in this part of Yorkshire. The moors tend to be above the tree line so are windswept rough land generally grazed by sheep. This makes them the perfect habitat for the UK and Europe’s largest wading bird the curlew. They are instantly recognisable by their long down curved bill, long legs and their evocative and haunting call.

Curlew in flight

Curlew in flight

They return to the moors in spring to nest between the tussocks of rough grass, setting the nest down and hidden from predators. They are territorial at this time of year but will react as a group if there is a threat in the area, flying low and loudly to discourage the perceived predator.

Calling curlew

Calling curlew

Adult birds will forage for worms, insects and caterpillars with their large beak while the young need areas close by of damp or waterlogged ground to allow them to forage. Both parents will share the incubation of the eggs taking turns to sit on up to 4 eggs which are generally laid in early May. Once the chicks hatch the female will leave the rearing to the male. The eggs hatch in around 30 days and the chicks fledge a further 10 days later.

The female is larger than the male with a larger beak, in the picture below the female is on the left and the male on the right (I think).

Curlew pair.

Curlew pair.

They can be long lived birds living over 20 years but they are in serious decline with a 54% fall in numbers since the early 1990’s. There seemed to be good numbers on both the moors I visited in May so hopefully that trend is reversing and they can start to rebuild the population.

Curlew in full cry

Curlew in full cry