A trip to Rotorua from here, around Lakes Rotoma and Rotoiti, avails one of the opportunity of seeing the dabchick, our endemic grebe. There among the rafts of New Zealand scaup, they may be seen briefly before they dive out of sight. However, in spite of the very many times I go to Rotorua and back around the lakes, I have yet to observe the courtship display for which grebes are famous. From what I have read, however, and from film and video, it would seem that whoever invented the tango must have taken something from their displays.
According to Oliver, a number of specimens of dabchick were first collected in the South Island, including two specimens, from Taieri and Waimate, by the Antarctic Expedition under Sir James Clark Ross which visted New Zealand in 1840. However, they declined in the South Island in the ninetheeth century so that now the dabchick is the grebe of the North Island and the crested grebe the grebe of the South. Dabchicks may be found on North Island lakes and larger ponds, sand dune lakes and pools, artificial dams and hydro lakes and occasionally slow running creeks. They are seldom seen to fly but must travel long distances at night for they have colonised many farm ponds.
Grebes are aquatic specialists, with lobed, rather than webbed, toes which propel and steer them underwater. Their tails are a vestigial tuft only and their large feet are set well back, making them efficient swimmers but clumsy on land.
The nesting season is from August through to March. The bulky nest is floating raft, usually anchored to rushes or some trailing branch. The books tell me that the courtship display consists of rapid head turning, a diving ceremony and a pattering ceremony in which the two birds first swim together with kinked neck and head held low, then one of them patters away loudly splashing.
The striped fluffy chicks leave the nest shortly after hatching but are fed for some weeks by the parents. They feed by diving for water insects, fresh water molluscs and very small fish and some vegetable matter. The feather feeding which is prevalent among other grebes has not been observed in the dabchick.
Potts writes, “We have ever thought it a pretty sight to watch a family of grebes on some lonely tarn or pool, fringed by a narrow but dense belt of Discariaor Olearia, that afforded an efficient screen for observation. We never saw more than two young ones in a brood; very often the labour of the parents is most equally shared, by each appearing to take charge of a young bird, which floated about quietly, often with the neck bent back, the head resting between the shoulders, now and then uttering a softy trilling note not unlike, but less marked, than the call of the parent bird. The old grebes dive incessantly, remaining but a short time under water; when their effort has been successful, a soft call summons the young bird, and the aquatic morsel, whether fish or insect, is always dipped in the water before it is offered to the young one. In the brief intervals between the dives, the wings are carried high, somewhat swan fashion, as if the more readily to catch the drying influence of the air. For some weeks the young preserve a greyish tone of plumage over the upper surface, the head retains some light greyish down, whilst the breast is pale rufous. We have not as yet remarked that the bird covers the eggs on leaving the nest; this is a habit which many writers attribute to the grebes of Europe.”
The dabchick is called Weweia by Maori from its occasional shrill call wee–ee–ee.
These birds do not seem to suffer from the duck shooting season although it has been observed that the reflexes of grebes are so quick that when shot at they would dive underwater before the charge could reach it.
Ohiwa Harbour, eastern Bay of Plenty, 2004.
Other common names: —
Small, dark grebe, blackish head with fine, silver feathers, pale yellow eye, dark chestnut foreneck and breast, black-brown upperparts, paler non-breeding plumage. The hoary-headed grebe, P. poliocephalus, is lighter and less red. The Australian little grebe, Tachybaptus novaehollandiae, is smaller.
Where to find: —
Restricted to the North Island with a wide but fragmented distribution, small bodies of freshwater such as sand–dune lakes and lagoons and larger inland lakes with shallow, sheltered inlets. It also uses “artificial” habitats such as farm ponds and dams and oxidation ponds.
Credit for the photograph: —
Illustration description: —
The Zoology of the Voyage of the Erebus and Terror, Birds, George Robert Gray, 1839-1843.
T. H. Potts, Transactions of the NZ Insitute, Volume 3, 1870.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the
Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Potts, T.H., Transactions of the NZ Insitute, Volume 3, 1870.
Page date & version: —
Saturday, 16 October, 2010; ver2009v1