The Way I See Things



Unlikely, but as it turned out, just possible.

I went to Kemerton Lake in the hope of seeing the great crested grebes displaying to each other, photos of which were posted on Sunday by someone I know, but they weren't in an amorous mood today. They drifted around for a while, keeping an eye on each other and occasionally diving for food, but not seeming especially motivated. After a time the male came fairly close to the hide and allowed me a few portraits before moving away again; and then the female swam across and caught a small fish, which she proceeded to play with for a while in the slightly cat-like way of these birds, before swallowing it and then diving again.

When she came up with this - what? carp, would you say? - my first thought was surprise that there was anything that big left in the lake after it has hosted a family of otters for a year, and my second was that the fun was about to begin. Though not for the fish, obviously, which clearly had its own views on the matter, even in its final moments, and for which I couldn't help but feel sympathy.

I've seen great crested grebes swallowing big fish on a few occasions, and I thought she would probably manage this, though I did once watch a bird at another site having to give up on one that it simply couldn't get into its throat, and drop it back into the water. This female tried the normal procedure first, tipping her head back and stretching her neck, and when that didn't work she bounced her body up and down on the water surface a few times - but gravity and momentum didn't do the trick either. Then she changed her grip on the fish and tried again, but still couldn't get it to go further than its first pair of fins. By the time she'd made a few more attempts she was sinking quite low in the water, and it looked as though she was tiring. I started to think that I might lose the bet I'd made with myself.

At this point she dived with the fish, which is behaviour I hadn't seen before, though all grebes will dunk their catch repeatedly in the water while positioning it to be swallowed. I just had time to speculate that she might be using the water to support the fish and rest her neck muscles, when she suddenly surfaced like a cork - or possibly a sea-to-air missile might be a better analogy - hotly pursued by the male who surfaced just behind her, and steamed towards the hide. He gave up the chase very quickly, but she wasn't to know that, and I'm sure it was her fear of being robbed of her prize that gave her the motivation to finally swallow the unfortunate fish. My second photo shows this happening, and there are two more in the sequence I've posted on Facebook that record her ultimate success, plus a final one showing how massively her meal distorted her neck.

The entire sequence from catch to swallow lasted only just over a minute, which surprised me when I looked at the time stamps on my files because it had felt much longer. For a couple of minutes after that she held a strange posture in the water - very elongated, with her neck angled and her head well forwards - presumably as the fish moved through her oesophagus and crop and into the first part of the stomach. Once she was able to contract herself back into a normal shape, she tucked in her head and went to sleep. 

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