Wild Mallorca: The red-collard fast sinker

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The Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) is a common resident breeder on Mallorca, and fun to watch on the marshes, with their continual diving antics and quick speed to move out of the way when the larger ducks drift past. The species name comes from two Latin words – Rufus means ‘red’ and collum means ‘collar’. It’s scientific name translates literally as ‘red-collard fast-sinker’. The genus name is from Ancient Greek, takhus meaning ‘fast’ and bapto ‘to sink under’.

They are excellent swimmers, propelling themselves underwater using their lobed toes on their long feet, which are set well back on the body, ideal for swimming but a hindrance when walking on land. In summer they look mainly dark except for the bright chestnut on the neck and face. The breeding call is a trilled and repeated ‘weet-weet-weet’ or ‘wee-wee-wee’ which sounds like a horse whinnying.

They are quite a small bird at 25 – 29 cm in length with a wingspan of 40 – 44 cm and a weight of 140 – 230 g. Shallow-edged lakes, ponds, and slow-flowing rivers and canals form their habitat. Tucan Marsh in the north of the island is a great place to see them close in, and in good numbers.

The nest is a floating tangle of aquatic vegetation attached to water plants, where 4 – 6 white eggs usually stained red are laid. Young birds have a cute stripy appearance. When the adult leaves the nest, the eggs are covered with weeds to deter predators. The young can swim as soon as they leave the nest and are often carried on the backs of the swimming adults which when seen is a lovely sight.
Food consists of small fish, water shrimps and aquatic insects. A small, dumpy bird with a powder-puff appearance to the body feathers, with the feathers at the rear end often fluffed up. The legs are a yellow-green and the lobed feet are visible in clear water. They show a lime-green patch at the base of the bill which is dark with a pale tip. In winter they appear a paler brown but darker on the cap, nape and back. The tail end is whitish.

Many a time I have been stood on the bank at Tucan Marsh watching the antics of this little bird, with almost constant dives and constant calls. They submerge leaving bubbles behind on the surface, then reappear soon after some distance from where they dived. On the surface they are confident and look elegant as they slowly move across the water, but as soon as another bird comes close they dive to re-emerge further away. Here, Common and Red-crested Pochards, Mallards, Moorhens, Gadwall and Coot share the same feeding areas, and often cause the grebes to dive out of their way – entertaining to watch.

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