Saturday, 6 December 2008

A Bedfordshire Slavonian Grebe

I'd noticed that there had been a slavonian grebe reported in Bedfordshire recently at Brogborough Lake. Given that this was reasonably close to where my sister-in-law lives, I suggested to my VLW (very lovely wife) that she might wish to pay her a visit and that I could drive her over there and go on to find the grebe whilst they went out shopping. As this plan suited all concerned we set off on Thursday at around 10:15am, arriving at the sister's house at around 11am. After a brief spot of elevenses, I left them to their shopping trip and departed on what should have been a short 20 minute drive down the A5 and along the A421 into Beds. I'd been that way earlier this year for the red-footed falcon so was reasonably confident that I knew the way. However, I'd not reckoned on a huge traffic jam at the junction where the A421 joins the M1 and I waited there for a tedious 45 minutes in near-stationary traffic before finally getting past the junction and arriving shortly thereafter at Brogborough Lake.

I'd not been to the lake before and from what I'd read there was no obvious access or viewing points so I was going to have to improvise. The first thing that struck me as I drove past it was how large it was. It was more than half a mile in length by perhaps a quarter of a mile in width. The prospect of finding one small grebe there with no proper access was a little daunting. I turned down a road behind the lake that lead to Lidlington and as I went I looked out for viewing points along the east side (where the bird had been reported). I came across a gate and stopped to have a look. The reasonably strong wind was coming into the shore at that point and the sun was also shining that way so viewing conditions were far from ideal and a quick scan revealed not much at all. I headed round the corner where I remembered from the map that there was supposed to be a footpath by a house that lead down to the lake. I got out and had a good look for it but could find no obvious footpath at all.

I was starting to feel somewhat frustrated, after my long time in traffic I was now finding it difficult actually to see the lake at all! I carried on driving round the lake and eventually found a gate where one could overlook the west end of the water. I set up my scope and a thorough search revealed a large (100+) number of pochards, plenty of tufted ducks, some rather smart goldeneye's, a couple of little grebes that gave me pause for thought, some great crested grebes, lots of coots and a few gulls, some common's in amongst them. I could only see a small portion of the lake from my viewing point so I drove round to the west side where there was a layby which would offer better viewing.

At the layby I carefully parked on high-curbed verge so that turning trucks could get by and set up my scope. From here I could see most of the western half of the lake though a thorough scan didn't reveal anything other than what I'd already seen. I found a track leading along the north shore and I started to walk along it, stopping periodically to scan around. After a few minutes I had gone far enough to be able to see the east end of the lake and round into the bay at the south-east corner. Towards this end there were several feeding grebes and at this point I started to look more carefully. I was viewing at a long distance at x60 magnification and at that range it was not easy to identify subtle detail. Several times I found a grebe that looked promising only to decide that it was actually just another great-crested. This did lead me to ask myself how I might know the slavonian once I saw it and I came to the conclusion that at that range I was looking for a bird intermediate in size between a little and great-crested grebe and with not such a proportionately long neck as a great crested and with less white on it. I carried on scanning at my long distance until right in the south-east corner, a few yards from the bank I found a bird that fitted all my long-range identification points. I could even compare it's size to some near-by great crested grebes and it was definitely smaller. One could just make out the clean dividing line between the black on it's head and the paler cheeks so it wasn't going to be a black-necked grebe. Confident of my identification I even took a few digiscope record shots though at that range they came out as little more than blobs.

I decided to go back round to that side of the lake and take a closer look now that I knew where to look. Back at the gate over there I found another parked car and saw a birder walking along the bank close by where I knew the bird to be. Hoping that it hadn't been spooked I started to scan. From this end I was looking into the sun and the water by the bank was partly in shadow so conditions were far from ideal but at least I knew where to look. I was still scanning when the other birder came back, saying that he'd not seen anything. I told him that I'd seen the bird from across the lake and whilst we were talking I found a grebe in my scope. Confusingly this was a great crested and I was just starting to have doubts when the slav grebe surfaced close by and I was able to point it out to my companion. We weren't able to view it for long before it moved into the deeply shaded section where it couldn't really be made out at all.

At that point my VLW phoned to say that she was back and wanting to know where was I, so I decided that it was time to head back to pick her up. The journey back was slightly complicated by my finding out that the junction that I'd used to exit the A5 was a restricted one and I couldn't get onto it so I had to improvise another route. Still I managed to get back ok and we made it back home just in time to pick up our younger daughter from school.

I feel that I earned my tick as it was really hard work finding the bird. That now means that I have all three rare grebes for the year about which I am most pleased.

2008 Year List

219: Slavonian Grebe

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