Grebes of the World
By Malcolm Ogilvie with paintings by Chris Rose.

Grebes of the World by Malcolm Ogilvie and Chris Rose (2002) published by Bruce Coleman (ISBN: 1872842038), 112 pages, 22 color paintings, 2 color identification plates and numerous range maps.

Distributed by NHBS Mailorder Book Store.

Review by Angus Wilson for Ocean Wanderers*

[*Please note: I am not affiliated with the publisher or authors but recognize this book to be of direct interest to readers of this web site. Sample pages are scanned at low resolution to give a flavor of the book without treading too heavily on copyright issues. The images are of course copyright of the authors and publisher.]

As the publishers blurb says, "the crowning glories of this wonderful book are the full page colour paintings of each species". The paintings by Chris Rose are indeed superb and the book's very large format (33 cm x 25 cm, too big to fit on my scanner) provides a perfect show case for them. One of my favorites is the pair of Black-necked (Eared) Grebes floating near some reeds of a freshwater pond (see below). A diminutive striped chick rides on the back of one parent whilst the other parent offers it a suitably tiny fish. Most of the plates show breeding plumaged adults, some in the act of feeding and others are tending to their floating nests. Oddly, the illustration of two Great Crested Grebes engaged in courtship - a reasonably familiar sight in Britain - is one of the least successful plates. The ripples on the water are marvelous but the birds are placed too far back (they are brought forward in the cropped version used on the cover) and their plumage lacks the texture seen in most of the other paintings.

At the rear of the book, a two-page spread compares twenty of the twenty-two species in their non-breeding garb. It is worth pointing out that the The Handbook of the Birds of the World edited by del Hoyo et al. manages to show all species on one plate but only in alternate (breeding) plumage. Chris Rose's winter plumage plate is therefore quite useful for identification purposes, although this is not really the aim of the book. The one weakness of the painting is the Pied-billed Grebe which looks like it has been severely abusing steroids. The bird seem far too large relative to others, appearing much heftier even than the Red-necked Grebe! Appendix I lists the weight of Pied-billed Grebe as 340-570 g whereas Red-necked Grebe comes in at 750-1600 g. This error aside, it is interesting to see the non-breeding appearances of the more unfamiliar species. Junin Flightless Grebe, for example, is like a more compact version of Western/Clark's Grebe, perhaps revealing their common ancestry. For unspecified reasons, Atitlan Grebe and Hooded Grebe are not shown in basic or juvenile plumage.

The text is written by Malcolm Ogilvie and overviews the natural history of each species. Rather than following a standardized format so familiar from other family monographs, Ogilvie gives us little nuggets of interesting information. We learn that the stunning Hooded Grebe, which breeds on upland lakes in remote parts of southern Argentina and Chile, was only discovered in 1974. Breeding adults are dark above and brilliant white below, similar to Silvery Grebes which are widespread in southern South America. The two species differ markedly however in their head patterns. Hooded Grebes have a glorious white blaze on the forehead that is capped with a crown-like shock of orange-gold. How such a distinctive bird could remain hidden from science until the 1970's seems astonishing but reminds us that new and fantastic avian discoveries are not necessarily limited to impenetrable tropical forests. Maurice Rumboll and Edward Shaw who initially discovered the Hooded Grebe on Laguna de Los Escarchados estimated the total world population at no more than 150 bird, raising significant concerns about its future survival. Indeed, the Los Escarchados colony underwent a series of breeding failures due to Kelp Gull predation and had fallen to only 75 birds by the end of the decade. Fortunately another breeding colony, holding some 1500 birds, was discovered in 1981 further to the north and more recent estimates (1986) put the total population at 5,000 birds spread over a series of inaccessible lakes. The future looks brighter for the Hooded Grebe but much work needs to be done in terms of understanding threats on the wintering grounds and the cycles of population growth and decline.

Even the better known species are full of surprises. I have always wondered why so many of the Western Grebes wintering on the coast of California appear fast asleep during the day as this seems strange behavior for a visual hunter. Ogilvie tells us that they feed extensively at night using phosphorescence in the water to follow the movement of fish.

Four appendices provide data on length, weight, breeding statistics, population status and conservation, and lastly the meanings and derivations of grebe names. I've always been interested in the origins of the common and scientific names for birds and wish more books would include this type of information. Often the names provide a glimpse into ornithological history or some character of the birds and their habitat. In this case I was amused to read that the specific name for the Horned [or Slavonian] Grebe Podiceps auritus comes from the latin auris and can thus be translated as 'eared'! In North America at least, the vernacular name 'Eared Grebe' refers to a separate species Podiceps nigricollis, the Black-necked Grebe and it is not hard to imagine the confusion for someone educated in the classics.

The text could have done with better editing. Awkward or ambiguous sentences are plentiful. In the introduction we are told that Great Crested Grebe "is the only grebe found in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australasia". What the author means, I assume, is that this is the only species with a range that includes these four continents and not that it is the only grebe species present. Little Grebe has a similar range except that it is replaced by the closely related Australasian Grebe in southeast asia, Australia and New Zealand. Likewise the fascinating Hooded Grebe account is marred by a easily corrected slip. We learn that these grebes retreat to coastal habitats each winter from the high mountain lakes they breed on, having "a choice between the nearer, western, side of the South American peninsula among the myriad of sheltered fjord son the Chilean coast, and the more distant Atlantic coast of Argentina." Clear enough, but the next sentence confuses me, "The latter seemed more probable, in view of the grebes' preference for feeding in shallow water, and this was finally confirmed in 1994 with the sighting of a flock of 400 birds in the estuary of the Rio Coyle, almost due west [sic] of Laguna de Los Escarchados and some 300 km (185 miles) south-west of the principal breeding area on the Meseta de Strobel." Do the grebes migrate east or west? Regrettably the wintering range is not shown on the map and we are left none the wiser. Fortunately Birdlife International's Threatened Birds of the World (2000) comes to the rescue, telling us that the only known wintering grounds are the Coyle and Gallegos estuaries on the Atlantic coast of Santa Cruz, suggesting an eastward path from the arid Patagonian steppe down to the ocean.

A hallmark of the grebes are the broadly lobbed toes and flattened legs which they use to row themselves through the water, however, the feet are not shown in any of the paintings. Diving action is well described in the introductory chapter but could benefit from some simple illustrations or sketches. Scattered through the text I found several useful analogies to geese, a life-long passion for Malcolm Ogilvie, a world authority on waterfowl. For example, in both geese and grebes, there are relatively few plumage differences between males and females. However, females almost invariably select mates that are larger than themselves and thus when looking at a pair of grebes snoozing on a pond one can hazard a reasonable guess at which is the male and which the female. These fragments of natural history should add tremendously to the pleasure of watching these familiar birds.

Summary: This book is a delightful piece of 'eye candy' for waterbird enthusiasts and the paintings are worth the price alone. Minor quibbles aside, the text offers a very readable entry into the fascinating and still poorly known world of these ancient birds.

Distributed by NHBS Mailorder Book Store.

Note: This book should not be confused with the similarly titled, "Grebes of our World" written by Andre Konter (2002) and published by Lynx Edicions.

To learn more about grebes visit the Ocean Wanderers Annotated List of Seabirds.

Text and page layout copyright of Angus Wilson© 2003 All rights reserved.

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