BLAGDON LAKE BIRDS

Pied-billed Grebe



Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps (Linnaeus, 1758)

Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps podiceps (Linnaeus, 1758)

(Extremely rare Nearctic vagrant)

Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps, Extremadura, Spain © Nigel Milbourne, 2010

  1. One, 1st-winter, 22nd Dec. 1963 (H.A. Thornhill, R.J. Prytherch), one adult, presumed the same, 14th May to 5th June 1968 (K.E.L. Simmons, D.E. Ladhams, R.J. Prytherch, B. King).

Fossil remains of true grebes date back some 23 - 25 million years and Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps is the only living member of the genus Podilymbus since the extinction of the Atitlán Grebe P. gigas of Guatemala in 1989. There are 3 subspecies of Pied-billed Grebe, P.p. podiceps (Alaska to Panama and Cuba), P.p. antillarum (Greater and Lesser Antilles) and P.p. antarcticus (Northern South America to southern Argentina). The birds that stray to Britain and Europe are of the subspecies P.p. podiceps, the northern breeders, which migrate south to winter on ice-free water bodies.

Pied-billed is a particularly secretive species which has the ability to sink out of sight rather than diving like Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis. It also hides and can view potential threats by poking just it's head, or even eyes and nostrils out of the water. Sibley writes "by contracting their abdominal muscles and thereby compressing their plumage, while at the same time exhaling, small grebes can submerge themselves from a resting posture on the water's surface without diving. In this manner they can adjust their buoyancy, for hunting or concealment from predators; small grebes are often seen with only the head or bill above the surface."

The first record of Pied-billed Grebe at Blagdon was the first acceptable record for Britain, although an old record of a bird said to have been killed at Radipole, Weymouth in January 1881 obviously pre-dated it. However, that bird showed clear signs of juvenile striping on the neck according to J.E. Harting writing in The Zoologist and he also supposed that the species was highly improbable to reach Europe given the known habits of the species at the time (clearly proved to have been incorrect as the 40 or so subsequent records of birds in Britain since 1963 testify). On 22nd December 1963, Blagdon Lake was almost completely frozen over save for a patch of open water in Holt Bay containing Mallards Anas platyrhynchos, Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope, Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula and Common Coots Fulica atra. Harry A. Thornhill spotted a small grebe swimming among the wildfowl but could not identify it. He drew Robin Prytherch's attention to the grebe and after three-quarters of an hour neither observer was sure what they had been looking at. It was a fortnight later when Robin recalled the grebe and decided to look through some of his reference books (now, that wouldn't have happened today, with all the resources of the internet at our disposal would it?) and spotted the bird in James Bond's Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, 1947. He decided that the mysterious bird was a first-winter American Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps. Luckily, Harry had taken some ciné-film of the grebe when he found it, so subsequent acceptance of the record was made easier. As it was a first for Britain, the process would have been particularly rigorous. Amazingly, an adult Pied-billed Grebe was found in Yorkshire in June 1965 - could it have been the same bird? The school of thought is that the Blagdon bird stayed close-by and was seen on various occasions at Chew Valley Lake from August 1965 before it became the second record back at Blagdon in 1968.

Confusingly, the second occurrence of what may, or may not, have been the same bird at the lake is given in the British Birds Rarities Report as being present from 14th May to 5th June and in the Bristol Bird Report and Somerset Birds as 23rd May to 6th June, 1968. It apparently frequented Top End (in litt., Robin Prytherch) during its second visit to the lake.

Thanks to David Cottle for reminding me he'd given me a large number of BOC News back issues that included May and June 1968 in which there is some clarification of the dates as follows:

May 1968; "Late May News. Pied-billed Grebe - is in the news again! It reappeared in May only to disappear in early June (predictable!!) The facts - It was first heard at Blagdon Lake on 14th May and was heard singing regularly until 5 June. It was not heard or seen on the following two days. The few individuals that knew about the Grebe supressed the release of the news so that two of them could make some intensive observations without the worry of disturbance from casual on-lookers. Some very useful data has been collected as a result. Nevertheless, the bird was there for anyone to rediscover. We've no doubt that it must still be somewhere in the locality so, over to you.........!" Eds. Glenn Baggott, Mike Kendall, Don Ladhams and Robin Prytherch.

June 1968; There were two items. First, in the systematic list of sightings for June "BL: seen and heard (also 'taped') up to 5th (KEL Simmons, DE Ladhams) see strop [sic] press." Secondly, in the "Local Stop Press All dates July. Pied-billed Grebe CVL (Herriott's End) heard on 4th (KELS) and seen well on 5th (G Selway)."

Dr K.E.L. Simmons reasoned that the bird had "settled in there between 8 and 14 May (possibly by nocturnal flight at the time of the waxing moon); certainly it was neither singing, calling or showing itself on the former date, or earlier, when I visited the area to watch my pair of Great Crested Grebes at their platform site." D.E. Ladhams, who studied the song, wrote that it could "easily be heard half-a-mile away."

So, there we have it, the British Birds Rarities Report appears to be correct but how the final date had become 6th June in the Bristol Bird Report and Somerset Birds when the original observers clearly state that the bird was not seen or heard on the two days after 5th June is a mystery. It appears that the bird relocated to Chew at some point between this last date and early July, although curiously, Somerset Birds does not give any dates for Chew Valley Lake in 1968. I am fully aware that sightings reported in BOC News are always prefaced with the caveat "not authenticated", but it would seem a little churlish to suppose that Ken Simmons was mistaken when claiming to have heard the grebe at Herriott's in July. Who, locally, would have been better qualified to recognise the call after his intensive observations at Blagdon. I'm assuming he didn't report it to the BBRC.

Several articles subsequently appeared on observations made at Blagdon and Chew Valley, details of which can be found in the Bibliography below. I wonder what happened to Harry Thornhills colour ciné-film though? I'd love to know.

The Pied-billed Grebe was chosen as the logo of the Bristol Ornithological Club (BOC) in 1966, having only recently been found for the first time in Europe at Blagdon Lake. As was remarked recently in Bristol Ornithology, "it seemed a natural choice", given the series of records at Blagdon and Chew Valley Lake, around the time.

Bibliography (sources of information)

  1. BOC News, May & June 1968.
  2. Cumming, J., Roberts, L. & Prytherch, R.J. 2010. The Club's Logo. Bristol Ornithology. 30, 79.
  3. Davis, H.H. (ed.). Somerset Birds, 1964. Somersetshire Archaeol. & Nat. Hist. Soc.
  4. Davis, H.H. (ed.). Bristol Bird Report, 1967. Bristol Naturalists' Society.
  5. Evans, L.G.R. 1994. Rare Birds in Britain 1800-1990. LGRE Publications Ltd., Amersham, Bucks.
  6. Ferguson-Lees, I.J. Recent Reports. Brit. Birds 57:4, 186-188, Apr. 1964.
  7. Ladhams, D.E., Prytherch, R.J. & Simmons, K.E.L. Pied-billed Grebe in Somerset. Brit. Birds 60:7, 295-299, Jul. 1967.
  8. Ladhams, D.E. Song of the Pied-billed Grebe. Bristol Ornithology, 1, No.2, 73-74, Sep. 1969.
  9. McGeoch, J.A. (ed.). Somerset Birds, 1968. Somersetshire Archaeol. & Nat. Hist. Soc.
  10. Palmer, P. 2000. First for Britain and Ireland 1600-1999. Arlequin Press, Chelmsford, Essex.
  11. Prytherch, R.J. Pied-billed Grebe in Somerset: a bird new to Great Britain and Ireland. Brit. Birds 58:8, 305-309, Aug. 1965.
  12. Sharrock, J.T.R & Ferguson-Lees, I.J. Recent Reports. Brit. Birds 61:7, 327-328, Jul. 1968.
  13. Sharrock, J.T.R. & E.M. 1976. Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A.D. Poyser, Berkhamsted, Herts.
  14. Sibley, D.A. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behaviour. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York.
  15. Simmons, Dr K.E.L. Pied-billed Grebe behaviour. Brit. Birds 60:12, 530-531, Dec. 1967.
  16. Simmons, Dr K.E.L. Winter flocking and behaviour of Little and Great Crested Grebes. Brit. Birds 61:12, 556-564, Dec. 1968.
  17. Simmons, Dr K.E.L. Throat-touching by Grebes. Brit. Birds 72:12, 563-569, Dec. 1979
  18. Simmons, Dr K.E.L. The Pied-billed Grebe at Blagdon Lake, Somerset, in 1968. Bristol Ornithology, 1, No.2, 71-72, Sep. 1969.
  19. Smith, F.R. and the Rarities Committee. Report on rare birds in Great Britain in 1968 (with 1964 and 1967 additions). Brit. Birds 62:11, 457-492, Nov. 1969.

Updated 23 February, 2013