At the start of winter when the first snows coat Mt Wellington I look for the hoary-headed grebes on the reservoirs at the Waterworks Reserve near my home.
The small, graceful birds looking as fragile as snowflakes out there on the vast expanse of water are an apt symbol for the frost and snow-laced months. The thin white stripes on the grebe’s head reminded the first settlers and pioneers of the hoar frosts of the old country, severe winters they thought they had left behind.
The grebes – only a little bigger than a blackbird – actually lose their striped breeding plumage in winter when they seek sheltered open waters after a breeding season on reed-fringed lagoons, lakes and estuaries along the coast. They assume a muted grey-brown colour overall during this time but with a little luck at the start of winter it is still possible to see the striped plumage before it fades entirely.
As usual this year I had made my grebe pilgrimage to the reserve but this time I was treated to an unexpected spectacle to eclipse all the others I have had over the years. I had arrived late, forgetting days were growing shorter. It may have been getting dark but I could still make out the shape of grebes – untidy silhouettes against the defused rays of a setting sun reflected in the waters of one of the reservoirs. I had found it impossible to tear myself away.
First Mt Wellington turning from a fractured texture of charcoal grey, to blue and then purple as the dying sun crossed to the west, and fell behind it. Then a yellow hue in the sky, tracing the mountain’s lofty outline. This soon turned to gold and within minutes Mother Nature had dipped into her paintbox for one more splash of colour on her canvas. The horizon was set ablaze by a fiery red and then orange sun, our star making a last statement as it retreated.
The lake was already in the shadow of the mountain, the waters still and tranquil under the black curtain. It was time to turn and head for home, but then something astonishing happened, a sight that will live with me forever.
The hoary-headed grebe I was watching joined a small party of others and, as they paddled to deeper water, they left what at first was an imperceptible wake behind them. However, the ripple of the water caught fragments of the fiery sky and in turn became ripples of flame. For a brief moment in time, measured not in seconds but a blink of a human eye, the paddling grebes left a trail of luminescent reds and oranges and yellows – like a meteor or a comet leaves a tail of bright light in the night sky.
As darkness fell the grebes had moved to the centre of the reservoir to sleep in safety. The grebes are perfectly adapted for a life on the water. Not only do they feed and conduct their elaborate courtship displays there, but they build floating nests and, as soon as their young have hatched, carry chicks on their backs. They may look like ducks and have waterproof feathers but they belong to an entirely different family, of which three species are represented in Tasmania. Along with the hoary-headed version is the great crested grebe – known for its striking “horned” summer plumage and elaborate courtship display – and the smallest member of the family, the Australasian grebe or dabchick.
The great crested grebe, like the hoary-headed, is usually found on open water, and the dabchick prefers sheltered billabongs and small dams and lakes.
The grebe’s adaptation to a life on water comes at a high price. Grebes have lobed feet instead of the webbed ones found in ducks and because these are situated at the end of their bodies they can hardly walk on land, they topple over when forced to run, and they are also poor fliers. When threatened, they prefer to vanish underwater than take to the wing.
When I saw the grebes set against the setting sun I immediately cursed the fact I did not have a camera with me to record the scene. But a photograph would never have done the moment justice: it needed the brush strokes of one of Tasmania’s acclaimed wildlife artists to capture the birds in fiery movement, and spirit.