The Red-necked Grebe – a monograph of a vociferous inhabitant of marshy lakes

Published on 29 January 2019 in Book reviews

By Jan Johan Vlug

Special issue of the journal of Ornithologische Arbeitsgemeinschaft fur Schleswig-Holstein und Hamburg, 2018 

ISSN 0589-686-X; €10 plus postage, e-mail [email protected]

Available online at http://www.ornithologie-schleswig-holstein.de/coraxartikel/Vlug_2018_Rothalstaucher_Corax_23-Sonderheft_1.pdf

Here in the UK there is a long tradition of ornithological monographs and many readers will be familiar with some of the classic ‘New Naturalist’ volumes of long ago and, of course, of more recent ‘Poysers’. This is something a little different, a special issue of a German journal, in English (by a Dutch author), not in the narrative format we are used to but more like a series of discrete papers. This treatment sometimes leads to a little repetition, but it works well and is easy to read. The subject of the monograph is also rather different for the UK reader, since it is a bird which is almost exclusively a visitor here, and a somewhat scarce one at that.

This is not the first full-blown study of the Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegena. That was written by the (then) East German ornithologist Ulrich Wobus as long ago as 1964 and published in German as No. 330 in the famous Die Neue Brehm-Bucherei series. An enormous amount of work has been done since on this species, both nominate grisegena (western Europe) and P. g. holbollii (east Asia and North America). In 2002, the BWP entry was rewritten by the present author as BWP Update 4(3). The studies continue and, in the meantime, Jan Johan has brought the story up to date for us in this impressive new collation of an obviously huge amount of data.

The volume is basically written in 15 sections, each with many numbered subsections, which I need not list here: they cover every heading you could possibly think of. The length of these sections varies considerably, and perhaps it is no surprise to find that the two longest, by far, cover behaviour and the breeding cycle (50 and 58 pages respectively). We are told, again not unexpectedly, that there are still ‘many unanswered questions’. For example, there is not yet much information on ecology and behaviour in the winter quarters, on moult, on pair formation and mate fidelity, or on territorial attachment; and almost nothing is known about the causes of population fluctuations or survival. Much more might be learnt through increased ringing studies and through the use of modern electronic tracking systems, but (and this is clearly the word from someone who knows what he is talking about) the Red-necked Grebe is an extremely difficult bird to catch…

There is nothing inherently wrong, of course, in producing a major work on a species whose life history is incompletely known, and this is especially true in this case when we consider the wonderfully detailed and fascinating analyses of behaviour (especially the breeding displays) and of the nesting cycle. I was intrigued, too, to learn how vocal these birds are. The illustrations are simply superb – some evocative line-drawings and a veritable treasure-trove of colour photographs, the latter mostly of birds displaying or at and around the nest. I learnt a lot from the photographs alone: two of these, for example, show something I had never consciously noticed, that a grebe coming in to land on the water does not fling its feet forward as a duck or a swan does, but lowers them astern, as it were, to achieve a little braking, and then does a perfect belly flop!

Anyone who is studying waterfowl of any kind should get hold of this remarkable monograph. There is much to recommend it to the general birder too. Jan Johan Vlug has rendered ornithology a considerable service, not just in pulling together such a vast amount of information, but also in making it such a pleasure to read.

Mike Everett