Our Planet
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  Birdwatch: Pied-billed grebe
Looking at the plump, top-heavy bird as it floats slowly across the water's surface, it is hard to believe that it can fly, let alone cross the Atlantic. Yet that's exactly what this little creature has managed to do.

It is a North American pied-billed grebe, a moorhen-sized member of a family not exactly famous for their migratory abilities. Nevertheless this bird has travelled more than 3,000 miles (4,827kms) across the ocean, to end up swimming around in my little corner of the Somerset Levels.

Others have travelled too, albeit not quite so far. Birders from all over the country have been coming here to see this rarity, a bird with fewer than 50 previous records in Britain. Its sporadic and unpredictable appearances have ensured its popularity amongst the binocular-toting twitching fraternity.

This particular individual was first identified a few weeks ago by a sharp-eyed volunteer working at the RSPB's Ham Wall reserve. He picked it out amongst its smaller and much commoner relative, the little grebe also known as the dabchick.

Like the dabchick, the pied-billed grebe is small, greyish-brown in colour, and with a fluffy rear end in this case showing a quick flash of white as it dives beneath the water to find food.

This bird can be infuriatingly distant, and tends to disappear inside thick clumps of reeds for long periods of time, much to the frustration of those who have come to see it. But when it does emerge it shows the key fieldmarks which helped to clinch its identity: a black throat, large, domed head, and most obvious of all, the dark vertical stripe bisecting the heavy, pale bill that gives the species its name.

Grebes are the most aquatic of all the world's birds, rarely taking to the air and virtually never coming to land, even to breed they lay their clutch of eggs on floating nests made out of waterweed, and the chicks hitch a ride on their parents' backs after hatching. So when the very first pied-billed grebe appeared in Britain, almost half a century ago in December 1963, some ornithologists even doubted that it could have crossed the Atlantic under its own steam.

That individual was first discovered by my friend and former colleague Robin Prytherch, a few miles north of here at Blagdon Lake. It stayed around for almost five years, commuting between Blagdon and nearby Chew Valley Lake, and disappearing for long periods of time before resurfacing again. Presumably, having crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the help of the prevailing westerly winds, it did not feel inclined to attempt the journey home.

We Somerset birders are hoping that our recent arrival will follow the example of its predecessor and stick around. However, the chances of it finding a second pied-billed grebe, of the opposite sex, are very slim. But even if it does not, it might decide to emulate another wandering pied-billed grebe, which back in the 1990s paired up with a little grebe in Cornwall, and raised three hybrid offspring.
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