Sunday 7 April 2024

Black necked Grebes at St Aidan's 5th April 2024

Today Mark and myself went to the RSPB's St Aidan's Nature Park that is situated by the River Aire between Leeds and Castleford in West Yorkshire.

St Aidan's extends for 877 acres and was once an opencast coal mine that ceased operation in 1988 when it was flooded due to the adjacent River Aire bursting its banks and turning the whole mine into a vast lake some 230 feet deep. It was subsequently drained at great expense and mining resumed until finally ceasing in 2002.

The land was left vacant until it was decided to turn it into a Nature Park, designated to be used for public recreation and a refuge for wildlife. St Aidan's first opened as a Nature Park in May 2013 under the care of the RSPB but unresolved land issues meant it closed shortly afterwards in July 2013. Following much wrangling between various interested parties the land was successfully transferred to Leeds City Council and in March 2017 a 99 year lease was signed with the RSPB to manage it as a Nature Park. 

The first and only time we had visited St Aidan's was when, after a birding trip to Shetland in 2021, we disembarked from the overnight ferry at Aberdeen on the 12th of October and detoured from our long car journey to the south of England to twitch a very rare bird in the form of a Long toed Stint.

That was in late Autumn when everything was in a slow decline but today in early Spring the reserve was vibrant with new life all around and for once the weather, from an inauspicious start of cloud and cold winds in the morning, had improved to become pleasantly sunny and almost mild.

A tiny wooden shed by the car park serves as the RSPB visitor reception centre  and together with a small cafe sits at the top of a slope giving a panoramic view over the reserve but the first thing to attract your notice, right by the car park is a locally famous, huge and I do mean huge, mechanical relic left over from the former mining operations, a dragline called Oddball that dominates the skyline.


The immense structure is also home to an equally well known pair of Little Owls, one of which was perched today on top of a pile of wooden sleepers below the dragline.

After being briefed by a volunteer as to what birdlife was about on the reserve we set off, descending down the main track to wander the various paths across and around the reserve. My main objective was to encounter the Black necked Grebes that breed here. Now with careful management and the creation of areas of shallow water and dense reedbeds the population is growing year on year. In 2013 there were 10 pairs but by 2023 this had risen to 18 pairs which constitutes 30% of the British population. We were told that this year they are expected to increase further. The grebes have become a bit of a success story and from a birder's point of view are one of Yorkshire's worst kept secrets. Today I counted nineteen individuals and had not covered the reserve comprehensively.

We followed the designated paths, having been told we might encounter the grebes just about anywhere but that our best bet would be a couple of distant lakes and certain channels of water that run parallel with the official paths. Black necked Grebes are classed as of mild Conservation Concern in Britain and it is imperative that everyone, birders, photographers,dog walkers et al ensure they do not disturb the birds and do not stray away from the paths, no matter how great the temptation.

As we walked along, a newly arrived Willow Warbler was singing its wistful refrain from some scattered Sallows and in the distance the sonorous boom of a hidden Bittern came from the prolific stands of dead reeds, currently still nothing more than close packed, head high amber stalks yet to be replaced by this year's new growth.

The reserve was dominated by the sound and sight of many Black headed Gulls that have formed breeding colonies on the lakes and forever, night and day, render up a raucous tuneless barrage of noise as they go about the business of producing another generation. Do not however dismiss them as they are an important factor in the  breeding success of the Black necked Grebes. The grebes choose to breed in the colonies of gulls as there they gain both protection from predators and warning of imminent danger from the ever vigilant gulls.

For half an hour we saw no sign of any Black necked Grebes but then walking by a lake populated by a colony of squalling gulls, two small grebes slowly swam out from the dead reeds at the water's edge and moved further out onto the lake. 

In breeding plumage they are simply breathtaking in their beauty.Superficially they appear dark and virtually featureless but you soon realise that the plumage is anything but. Their black head with its busby shaped crown and vertical forehead is  totally distinctive but what catches your eye is the fan of golden feathers on each side of the head and the demonic red eyes. As they turn in the sun the colours become ever more intense.

I stood for a considerable time watching them laze around on the water. An obvious pair they swam, preened and dived for food but for the most part appeared content to while the time away doing much of nothing. Presumably they will soon be busy building a nest, laying eggs and raising their young.

A third grebe appeared  swimming towards them and commenced calling. It looked lost but then a fourth bird came into view, matters settled down and the grebe's calls ceased. I, meanwhile, was in seventh heaven, realising a long held ambition to see and photograph these beautiful birds in their breeding habitat.The sun and cloud shadows chased each other across the sky as my mind returned to last month when I went to see a Black necked Grebe that spent a couple of days on a small lake near Oxford. Whimsically I fancied that maybe it had been on its way here  from its winter home on the south coast of England.

The path I was on ran between two lakes and turning to look at the other lake behind me I heard another grebe calling and scanning with my binoculars I found not one but another five!

We had heard a rumour  that the RSPB had roped off the areas where the grebes were for their security but we found no evidence of this.The prolific reeds that bordered virtually every bank meant that it was nigh on impossible to photo the grebes up close. However there were certain designated places where gaps had been created presumably to allow photographers to get their images.Naturally there were no grebes to be seen anywhere near these gaps.Subsequently I learned from another birder/photographer that it was very much down to chance and no little luck to find a pair of grebes that were photographable at close quarters and that if you did it could be just about anywhere on the reserve and not only in the known hotspots.

Many fantastic close up images have appeared over the years of the Black necked Grebes at St Aidan's although it is de-rigeur to approach them too closely. So how did these images come about? 

Walking further I came across three photographers crouched on a bank where there was a natural gap in the reeds  bordering a narrow channel of water.They told me there was a pair of Black necked Grebes in the channel that would swim in front of the gap and come very close, literally just a few metres away.

So this was how it was done.

I stood with them, waited and within minutes the two grebes swam past, diving and feeding as they went.They showed little concern at our presence and indeed returned to provide us with a second opportunity to take their picture.

I really could not ask for anything more.  

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