On The Wing by Gary Atkins

on the wing
on the wing

Do birds have preferred locations for their winter holidays? And do they spread the word among their mates and relatives when they find somewhere they like?

Strange questions perhaps, but a ‘yes’ to both might explain why Carsington Water has in the last several years become a winter hot-spot for Great Northern Divers – large and exciting members of the Gavia family that contains five different species of diver.

As many as four have over-wintered on Carsington, with a further adult turning up on cue this year. A late autumn arrival stayed only a day – and it was feared that the low water levels might have deterred a bird that can dive up to 200 feet to find the large fish such as trout and pike on which it feeds – but in November, a second bird dropped in and, two months on, is still here.

Large bodies of water attract many species of water birds that travel long distances on migration, but most stop for just a few hours or days before moving on. But it seems Carsington Water IS the final destination for some Great Northern Divers (maybe it’s one family spreading the word about what a nice place Derbyshire is!).

The sight of a Great Northern Diver is guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine of most British birders as it’s immediately clear that they’re looking at something much larger the ducks or grebes they usually see. Growing to nearly a metre in length and with a wing span approaching 1.5 metres, ‘GNDs’ are nearly twice the size of Great Crested Grebes and three times larger than another Carsington-based cousin, the Little Grebe.

By the time they reach Carsington they’re a long way from their summer breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland – or Canada, northern America and Alaska, where they are called ‘loons’ (the Great Northern Diver is the Common Loon).

They breed on inland waters, generally raising two young. They fly south for the winter, generally settling around coasts such as northern Scotland, but some do seem to prefer large inland waters.

Its striking summer plumage resembles pop art, with white squares on black-panelled wings and zebra-like stripes on its otherwise black neck, and only its red eye breaking the monochrome. In winter, particularly at a distance, they appear more uniformly dark with a white chest ... but their size still makes them unmistakable.

Local birdwatchers almost expect this rare and beautiful bird’s annual pilgrimage. One thing’s for sure, if it chose a different location from its holiday brochure next year, we would be all the poorer for it.