Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Australasian Crested Grebes, Lake Lyndon


For those who missed seeing some of my 'Wild Aotearoa' exhibition at the Green Room Cafe it is now showing at the Restaurant@Rossendale. Rossendale is a beautiful winery situated just outside of Christchurch. So if you want to go and have a nosy and one of their famous Rieslings go and have a look!  

Rossendale Winery: 136 Old Tai Tapu Road Christchurch 8025    |  

It was love at first sight when I first laid eyes on the magnificently handsome Australasian Crested Grebes or kāmana as they are known in Maori. Kāmana have captivated and intrigued me for the last few years. These birds belong to an ancient order of diving water birds found on every continent in the world. They are renowned for their mating displays and the way young grebes ride among plumage on the back of their swimming parents. Three of the 22 species in this order have become extinct in the last 30 years, and unfortunately Australasian crested grebes are endangered here in New Zealand with approximately 300-400 birds remaining. 

|   Australasian Crested Grebe Nest   |   Lake Lyndon   |   18mm   |   1/320sec   |   f/13   |   ISO500   |   

When I heard there was a pair of Australasian Crested Grebes nesting at Lake Lyndon, in the Canterbury high country I couldn't help but have a look. Lake Lyndon is a relatively small alpine lake and has little to no substantial tree cover except for a few stunted willows, this makes finding the birds relatively easy. I took a trip up to the Lake one Saturday afternoon in hope of having a 'reccy' and locating the nest. The lake was quite busy due to weekend activities and finding the birds proved extremely difficult... they weren't in their usual nesting locations and I began to wonder if I was I too late? Had the nest failed? Were the birds laying low due to the increased human activity on the lake? As the sun set behind the mountains I decided to give up the search and have some dinner... I pulled up to the quiet side of the lake and set up my camp stove; as the water was boiling I noticed some movement in one of the small willows right in front of where I was sitting - I had managed to park within 50 metres of this interesting grebe's nest!

What was particularly surprising was that this nesting pair had already successfully brought up a healthy juvenile and had decided to nest again. It is not uncommon for grebes to re-nest after a failed nest attempt, but to re-nest while looking after a rapidly growing youngster was unusual, in fact I haven't heard of this behaviour before. Furthermore, it was helping its parents build the new nest for its younger siblings. WOW! It would watch its parent dive to collect weeds and twigs to place on the nest, and then copy its parents by placing small bits of weed onto the nest itself. What an amazing privilege to watch this interesting learning behaviour in front of my very eyes! Unfortunately the light was now well behind the mountains to the West and photography was out of the question!
|   Australasian Grebe with Juvenile in the Morning fog   |   Lake Lyndon   |   390mm   |   1/400sec   |   f/7.1   |   ISO640   |

I had to get back up there to see if I could photograph these amazing birds! I was able to free up a couple of days around Waitangi Day. I drove up to the lake after work and spent an extremely disrupted sleep in the back of the car due to high winds and cool high country temperatures - I woke to the sound of a couple of angry skylarks chasing a sly stoat around outside the car. Rain, mist and howling winds made for less than desirable photographic conditions and what was worse was that one of the adult birds and the juvenile were nowhere to be seen. I spent the day watching the nest from a distance hoping to see the two birds return and relieve the poor incubating parent who looked as if it had a rougher night than me. The day slowly disappeared and still no sign of the missing birds - I was beginning to lose hope as I had seen a grebe predated on this lake a couple of years back and began to wonder if the stoat had got to one or both of the birds. At around 6pm that evening I was elated when I saw from a distance two grebes returning to the nesting site - yes they had finally returned after perhaps spending the whole day sheltering from the strong winds... I imagined how happy the incubating parent would have been to see these two return. Once back, there was a little socialising and some nesting building before a change of incubating duties...phew! The sky was dark and the wind still made it difficult to get any decent shots so I happily watched the grebe family while enjoying a cuppa - I would hopefully get some better weather and some photo opportunities tomorrow.
I awoke early to a still, quiet, foggy morning; the sun had not yet broken the horizon and I was relieved to see all three birds around the nesting site. As the light started to appear through the fog I was able to get to work capturing the grebes in the mist (above). The fog, light and calm conditions made it possible to create some interesting images of the nesting (below).
|   Australasian Crested Grebe's Nest   |   18mm   |   1/80sec   |   f/11   |   ISO640   |

The sun began to slowly burn off the fog, creating one of the most beautiful high country mornings I have ever experienced! Soon there was enough light to capture the grebes carrying all sorts of interesting nesting materials (below).
|   Australasian Crested Grebe with nesting material   |   360mm   |   1/640sec   |   f/7.1   |   ISO400   | 
|   Australasian Crested Grebe with nesting material   |    175mm   |   1/640sec   |   f/7.1   |   ISO400   |
|   Juvenile Australasian Crested Grebe stretching    |    420mm   |   1/1000sec   |   f/7.1   |   ISO400   | 

As the sun rose and the temperature increased the fog totally lifted and revealed a beautiful high country day. The juvenile grebe was extremely inquisitive and happily preened, hassled its busy parents, stretched (above) and played in the clean and cool alpine waters of Lake Lyndon. Australasian Crested Grebes' legs sit well back on their bodies which make them extremely strong swimmers. As a result the grebes spend their entire lives on the water and they are extremely awkward on land. I spent the afternoon photographing the grebe family -what a wonderful way to spend Waitangi Day. Even though the trip had started off a little rough these special moments made the trip worthwhile. NZ scaups, black-backed gulls, shags, pied stilts, south island pied oystercatchers (SIPOs), banded dotterels, skylarks, NZ pipits, and harriers also resided on the Lake. I managed to snap this SIPO (below) as it had a lazy stretch on Waitangi Day!
|   South Island Pied Oystercatcher Stretching  |   390mm   |   1/640sec   |   f/7.1   |   ISO500   |
|   Australasian Crested Grebe Eggs   |   Lake Lyndon   |
Last Friday morning I returned to Lake Lyndon with a few friends in hope of photographing the grebes with their newly hatched chicks. We arrived up at the Lake to find three cold abandoned eggs! It is always upsetting as a photographer and conservationist to witness an abandoned nest, especially when you watch firsthand the effort that the parents put into building and incubating. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon occurrence in nesting grebes. In fact an extremely high percentage of nests failed this year in Lake Pearson and Lake Lyndon! Strong winds, choppy waves  and rising lake levels can often flood grebe's nests and wash generated by motorised watercraft can also swamp nests and destroy eggs. Noise and predators can scare adult birds off their nests and leave chicks exposed to the cold or predators. The water levels in the Lake were much lower than the week before and had left the nest vulnerable to land based predators. We wondered whether over inquisitive people or animals such as stoats, cats or raptors had scared the adults off the nest.
Thanks for stopping by! A previous Australasian Grebe Blog can be viewed here: