Category Archives: 03) Divers and Grebes

Holboell’s Red-necked Grebe

by Guillermo Rodríguez

The American/East Asian subspecies of Red-necked Grebe, P g holboelliii, has been observed in the WP with accepted records in the UK (a bird shot in Wester Ross in September 1925 and subsequently identified based on measurements), Spain (two winter records from Galicia in 1984 and 1987, which were identified in the field, although these records will likely be reviewed again in the near future by the Spanish Records Committee), Iceland (at least five), and single accepted records in Sweden and Norway, in addition to several other reports. Since they are quite common as wintering birds along the American Atlantic coast (where, for instance, Pacific Diver is scarce/rare), they should be expected to reach Europe regularly. But do they?

holboellii is known to be larger and darker, and to have more yellow in the bill than the nominate grisegena. According to Pyle (2008), the differences in size are likely to be significant enough to clinch the ID. For example, the wing length is 180-212mm in holboellii versus 153-188mm in grisegena, showing that there is limited size overlap. However, these differences would obviously require in-hand measurements for identification. It’s my understanding that separation of holboellii from grisegena is currently considered to be impossible under field conditions, and the validity of the pattern of yellow in the bill has also been questioned (because a few grisegena show yellow bills similar to holboellii). However, the longest-billed holboellii show impressive harpoon-like bills which, in my opinion, are clearly outside the range of variation of grisegena.

Another identification feature that’s not usually mentioned in the literature is the general body structure; holboellii is considerably more powerful, with a longer neck, a longer and stronger bill and a flatter forehead. The head often looks square rather than rounded (although it’s also important to consider the age-related variation of the head shape, since first-winter birds tend to show rounder heads in general). As a useful comparison, holboellii somewhat resembles Great Crested Grebe. The main problem is that structure is subject to interpretation, and any identification solely based on the jizz is usually disputable. Variability in body shape is also quite extensive, and in particular many American holboellii may look as small and delicate as European grisegena. On the other hand, the largest-billed grisegena are at the same time the biggest individuals, with a more powerful structure than average birds, altogether favouring the holboellii impression.

Still, I do think that the largest and most striking holboellii could be definitively identified in the field if one turns up in Europe. For instance, check out two examples of such extremely large birds here and here.


Red-necked Grebe ssp. holboellii, first-winter, February 2014. New Jersey. Picture by Sam Galick.

Many first-winter holboellii show a striking pale iris, which forms a contrasting ring around the dark eye that is very obvious with close views. I don’t know the variation in grisegena well (any feedback is welcome!), but my impression is that it isn’t always so obvious; perhaps the iris is on average paler in holboellii?.

The structural differences are easily noticeable even in distant birds at sea:


Red-necked Grebe ssp. holboellii, December 2015. Massachusetts. Picture by Guillermo Rodríguez.

Sadly not all individuals are so distinctive; for instance the bird below – although it still looks large and long-billed – is probably still consistent with grisegena.


Red-necked Grebe ssp. holboellii, adult, December 2015. Massachusetts. Picture by Jeremy Coleman.

And actually many holboelli look much smaller, more delicate and round-headed:


Red-necked Grebe ssp holboellii, December 2005. Massachusetts. Picture by Tom Murray.

As a rough estimate, I would say that on the east coast of the United States the proportion of birds that are 1) markedly large and powerful, 2) intermediate 3) small, grisegena-like is somewhere between 20-40-40(%) and 10-30-60(%). My impression from a winter trip to Korea is that Asian holboellii on average are even more obvious, but at the time I didn’t pay enough attention (see some examples from Japan here).

Some birds, particularly adults, are remarkably dark, especially on the flanks; in addition, the facial dark mask sometimes extends towards the cheek.


Red-necked Grebe ssp. holboellii, adult, November 2012, Massachusetts. Picture by Christopher N. Ciccone.

A couple of birds from Spain

One obvious problem with using structural features for identification is that they are strongly affected by the posture and activity of the birds. Take a look at this (presumed) grisegena from northern Spain photographed on two different days. I have the impression that birds at sea tend to look more like holboellii than birds on calmer waters, such as estuaries, where they tend to look more like grisegena. Presumably this is because the latter are more relaxed, but it’s difficult to say.


Red-necked Grebe ssp grisegena, February 2016. Cantabria, N Spain. Picture by Lander Zurikarai.


Red-necked Grebe ssp grisegena, February 2016. Cantabria, N Spain. Picture by Jesus Menéndez.

The amount of yellow on the bill of this bird is similar to that shown on all the holboellii in previous photos, extending over the entire lower mandible and reaching the upper mandible up to the nostrils.

In March 2015, an interesting Red-necked Grebe was found in Galicia, northwest Spain. The bird was remarkably dark on flanks and cheek and presented a substantially long neck, strong structure, and powerful bill, which accentuated its long-headed impression. This bird was probably within the size range of grisegena (at least it wasn’t one of the obvious and “identifiable” holboellii) and the reduced yellow in the bill was certainly against it being holboellii, but it still gave a Nearctic impression.


Red-necked Grebe, first winter, March 2015. Galicia, N Spain. Picture by Jose Luis Lorenzo Garcia “Colon”.

More on the Shetland diver

Many thanks to all those who have commented so far. Still in the process of checking out all the angles but an encouraging response so far.

Keith Brockie posted an interesting comment earlier this morning:

Are there any photos showing the side of the neck? The easiest way to separate a summer plumaged arctica from pacifica is the extent of the white neck stripes. In arctica they extend right down the neck ‘flowing’ with the belly stripes. In pacifica the neck stripes end before the base of the black throat patch, look at any photos and it can be easily seen and to my knowledge has never been commented on!

The difference Keith describes seems obvious in some photos, but less so in some others for example this Pacific in Manitoba, by Martin Scott.


Sadly, I don’t have much in the way of decent, side-on images of the Grutness bird with the neck fully visible. This is probably the ‘best’…


Or maybe this one


Pacific Diver in Shetland?

Grutness, 16th May 2013

by Roger Riddington and Paul Harvey


A quick post from Shetland to get some feedback about an interesting diver seen earlier this evening. At about 7.30 I got a phone call from Paul Harvey, who’d just seen a stunning, summer-plumaged Black-throated-type diver in the sheltered waters of Grutness voe. Paul was out birding with bins only, was some distance from his car/scope and needed a second opinion – the fact that he couldn’t see a thigh patch on the bird made my journey time that much quicker. Shame I don’t get a company sports car from BB but there you go.

To cut a long story short, I picked up Paul, reunited him with his scope and then we started to grill the bird. The photos below tell their own story really, a bird with a solidly dark flank and an arrestingly small-looking bill. I started to try to photograph it – not so easy in low light, with the scope at x60 and the camera zoomed in to max, but at least there is something. We watched it for about 15-20 minutes, getting gradually more twitchy about it, before it (sadly) flew off strongly. In flight, there was a neat, even black rim around the flanks, with no sign of any indent towards the thigh/rump. At no stage did we see any white in the thigh either, even though the bird was typically sitting quite high in the water.

And – well there’s not much more to say. We’d be grateful of any constructive input! Pacific Diver is a major challenge in summer plumage and it would be interesting to see what people think. Seeing on average one Black-throat a year in Shetland doesn’t make us best placed to judge these things!


P1060690bA quick interjection from M.G. Not an easy call. Glad that RR and PVH have taken the risk of putting this bird ‘out there’. For me the photo above seems compelling. The area below the rear edge of the wing coverts is the place which is white in Black-throated Diver and dark in Pacific Diver. It appears to be dark, and this concurs with their field views. The bill looks pretty titchy too doesn’t it – and the head/bill combo feels all Pacific. They are asking the critical question in the right spirit. Hope it gets seen again- for them, and for us to learn! As already indicated, comments welcome.



White-billed Diver discovery

White-billed Divers off Portsoy, North-east Scotland: discovering a new birding spectacle

Paul Baxter, Chris Gibbins and Hywel Maggs

In April 2011 Peter Osborn contacted HM to say that he has seen what he thought could have been a White-billed Diver off the harbour at Portsoy, North East Scotland.  At this time White-billed Diver was a very rare bird in the region, with only a handful of records, so the sighting was well worth checking out.  After work on Monday 25 April CG and HM drove up to Portsoy and arrived to find a flat-calm sea and perfect viewing conditions.  Much to their amazement they counted 5 White-billed Divers in the bay, mostly in or approaching summer plumage.  Wow!  They were all rather distant, but unmistakable with their ivory ‘tusks’ shining out in the early evening sunshine.  The distance meant that photographs were impossible, so HM and CG made some field notes and sketches (Plate 1) and alerted local birders to the spectacle unfolding on their doorstep.


Plate 1. Field sketches of Portsoy White-billed Divers on 25 April 2011.  Chris Gibbins.

PAAB went up at the weekend, just four days later, but no birds were present. So, what was going on? Were the 5 birds a one-off event, or were White-billed Divers present off Portsoy each Spring? Or perhaps they were present all winter?  The Spring passage of White-billed Divers on the Western Isles is of course rather well known, so the three of us agreed to start going up to Portsoy regularly to try to establish what the true situation was.

For the remainder of Spring 2011 and over the following two winters we made regular trips to Portsoy.  We only had a single bird in the winter of 2011/12 (from 17th March until 17th April, a bird in active wing moult) and there was certainly no clear evidence of a Spring peak.  In the 2012/13 winter the first bird was not seen until 18 March, when three winter-plumaged individuals were present.

From the time of the first sightings in 2011 we discussed the possibility of chartering a boat, so after the three birds on 18 March 2013 PAAB made contact with Gemini Charters at Buckie (a harbour just West of Portsoy) and made plans for some off-shore forays.  Two trips were arranged initially (one on 14 April and another on 21 April), with a different group of birders on each one. All available places were taken on each trip, and each had an entirely different group of birders. The three of us were scheduled to be on the first trip but unfortunately this was cancelled due to bad weather.  The second trip (i.e. on 21st) therefore became the first, but as it was already full there was no room for us; there was nothing we could do but reschedule our trip and wait to see what the others saw on 21st.  They scored, with between 7 and 10 birds seen in the bay just off Portsoy harbour.  It was gripping stuff – up to 10 White-billed Divers in one spot in North-East Scotland!

Our trip was rescheduled to 28th so we waited nervously for news of the weather.  The weather for 28th was not looking good so the trip was changed to a narrow window in the early afternoon of 27th.  As it turned out, this window could not have been better – we had 13 birds over the course of the 3 ½ hour trip.  The majority were close to full summer plumage so it was a spectacular day, although the rolling sea made viewing and photography difficult. The photos were little better than record shots, but we managed complete a looped survey route and secure GPS coordinates for the birds

 wb2Plate 2.One of the closer birds seen on 27th April.  Most birds were in a similar plumage to this, close to but no quite in full summer dress. Chris Gibbins

 wb3Plate3.The same bird as plate2. Chris Gibbins

wb4Plate 4.  Watching a White-billed Diver from the MV Gemini Explorer, April 2013. Paul Baxter

wb5Plate 5.  Watching a White-billed Diver from the MV Gemini Explorer, April 2013. Paul Baxter.

On both boat trips the birds were concentrated into a remarkably small area; all 13 on the trip of 27th were in the area between Logie Head (just east of Cullen) and Portsoy.  We have checked the coastline a few miles either side of Portsoy on several occasions and not seen any birds, so it does seem that all the action is concentrated around Portsoy.  The relatively small number of birds seen on our mid-winter visits suggests that it is primarily a Spring passage phenomenon, but for the moment we do not know what is so attractive about Portsoy Bay to these birds, nor how long into the Spring and early Summer they remain.  Whether this is a new phenomenon or whether birds have been overlooked in the past also remains unclear.  Prior to our regular visits to look for divers the area of coast around Portsoy was very underwatched, at least relative to the areas further west (towards Spey Bay) and east (around Banff and Fraserburgh) so divers may always have been there in Spring.  Alternatively, their presence may be a recent phenomenon caused by changing environmental conditions elsewhere. We simply don’t know.  However, what we know for sure is that ‘discovering’ that White-billed Divers occur in such numbers off our coastline has been a great experience.

Paul Baxter, Chris Gibbins and Hywel Maggs, Aberdeenshire

Black-throated Diver

Pushing the Boundaries Tour Days one-two

Had a blast with the Bangor Bird Group, animated discussion with the ‘We Bird North wales’ guys via the hospitably of Ian and Margaret Wright on Monday, followed by drinking wine until too late with Alan Davis and Ruth Miller. Tuesday morning we awoke, groggily, to beautiful walk up on the Great Orme (and flight views of Chough), enjoyed sunshine walk around Conway RSPB hosted by Julian Hughes and popped in to see a flighty Black-throated Diver at Rhyl; 2 Waxwings were an unexpected bonus. Sadly we felt it necessary to cancel the Lincolnshire talk for Tuesday evening due to weather and dangerous road conditions. this has no been rescheduled for Friday 1st February same time, same place.

BT Diver Rhyll 22.1.13.b

BT Diver Rhyll 22.1.13

Obliging Black-throated Diver at Rhyl

wax 1

wax 22 Waxwings at Rhyl, which look to us like ad female (above) and 1st winter female (below). Here some of Tormod’s sketches of Waxwings from Norway, 20 years ago as it tried to learn how to age and sex them- without reference to books.

wax ta 1

wax ta 2

taDiscovering the tameness of British  Robins at Conway RSPB

3Tormod and ‘Wrighty’ at sunset at Inland sea, Anglesey

445 (2)with Alan Davies at Conway RSPB

446 (2)waffling at Bangor University

Behaviours of Great Northern Diver

Rhyl, North Wales

Returning on Friday (13 Jan) from a wonderful couple of days in North Wales we called in at Rhyl Marine Lake. The adult Great North Diver still present, eventually came very close. Was able to watch a couple of lovely little behavior traits:

  • Swallowing a crab

  • Losing the Lump

First off the crab.

Diving non-stop for food it surfaced with this crab. Seemed to take a few moments to wash it off in the water before swallowing it whole. I am not sure but, the crab seemed still alive. Quite some feat! I think its a Shore Crab?





Now cleaned, just after this shot the bird turned away and swallowed the crab in one quick movement- amazing!

Losing the lump

Great Northern Divers variable show a big bump of lump on their forehead which at other times is absent leaving a smoothly contoured curved head shape. Here’s the lump showing well:

At such close range it was easy to watch the bump- presumably a set of raised feather- lowered just prior to the birds dive. You can see it happen on the video clip:


White-billed Diver heaven

Hunting Ground for Mega Rare Birds

13th May 2011. Met Tormod 12:45 off the ferry having spent the morning with the seabirds of  Hornøya.  Stopped for a quick lunch at the Polar Hotel in Vardø (famous base camp for Nansen and co. ) and headed north.

Polar Hotel in Vardø and nearbv Nansen’s statue and plaque (tells you when he arrived and then returned from just failing to reach the North Pole).

A large break-water outside Vardø is an excellent gull spot.  An adult Glaucous Gull was stunning and Tormod told me about adult Sabine’s and adult Ross’s Gulls, same day the previous May in a snow storm.  Duck in the harbour included 6 King Eider, 2-3 flocks of Steller’s Eider, Common Eider, Common Scoter, Mergansers and several Black Guillemot.

We drove north and through some amazing terrain (the 1st summer female Stejneger’s Scoter is currently present off this section of coast- so I can visualise where it is!).  The two things are the eerie landscape, which was a filming location for ‘extra-terrestrial’ elements of the James Bond movie “Moonraker”, and the second is the sheer richness of the sea.  It’s hard to keep going from the road, you can see its cram jammed with sea duck (Long-tail Duck numbering up to thousands), Scoter, Eiders and loads of gulls – each flock containing several  Glaucous Gulls, the odd Iceland and one or two “hybrid” types.

‘Moonraker landscape’, NE Varanger. Rong Ouzel, pallid looking Red Fox, White-tailed Eagle and Rough-legged Buzzard all seen from the car. The sea is full of birds. There’s currently a young female Stejneger’s Scoter somewhere on the sea seen in the photo.

Saw several of these, including this one in Moonraker land. Most Red Foxes seemed to have much denser fur and paler isabelline ‘plumage’ than British foxes. Arctic Foxes are further inland in Varanger and require a set of skies to see. The Red Fox has ousted them in many areas.

We finally arrived at one of my favourite spots.  Hamningford. The tiny community of houses looked perfect for rare passerine vagrants, and as if to demonstrate I soon located European Robin or maybe it was a ‘Russian Robin ssp. tataricus, a new bird anyway, for Tormod in Varanger.

Here’s me clambering above the tiny community of Hamningford.

White billed Diver heaven.

Tormod and I sea-watched for a couple of hours locating 18 White-billed Diver, including a single flock of ten just beyond the surf plus several Blue Fulmar, Long-tailed Duck and a variety of auk.  We didn’t see any but it’s a place where Beluga (the white whale!) come close in shore rubbing their bodies against the rocks.  Returning back to the houses, only a couple of hundred yards from the sea-watching spot, we opted to look for passerines.  There’s no real vegetation so I went into ‘Shetland mind-set’.  Singing Fieldfare and Redwing drew us to pick up a large, first summer, Peregrine.  It’s close to the border to where people say you get Tundra Peregrine.  I don’t know if it was one or not – have a look.

Around the gardens we found Northern Golden Plover, Snow Bunting, Tundra Bean Geese, Pink-feet Geese, Arctic Hare and 2 Red Fox.  I picked up a movement, set up my scope and clocked a Tree Sparrow.  So I turned to Tormod and said, “How often do you get Tree Sparrow in Varanger?”  He replied “I’ve never seen one.”  So I said “Are they rare?” to which he replied he didn’t think there’d been any records.  So I did that cheeky little thing and said “There’s one in here” and pointed to my scope.  A few moments later a second and then a third bird appeared.  That evening 3 Tree Sparrows were mega alerted for Varanger on the Norwegian bird news. Sorry rubbish photo.

Seriously! I think this place look like an awesome spot for Eastern vagrants- maybe a place to look for a new species of passerine to add to the Western Palaearctic list. Just musings…maybe I will organise a trip for next September- any takers?