Endangered diver in the spotlight as numbers plunge

Black-necked grebe, photo: Marek Szczepanek, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

The Czech Society for Ornithology has named the black-necked grebe Bird of the Year 2015. The water bird, which used to be an indelible part of the Czech landscape, is presently facing the threat of extinction. The Society for Ornithology said one of the main motivations behind their choice was to raise public awareness about the endangered species. I spoke to one of our leading ornithologists Petr Voříšek:

Black-necked grebe,  photo: Marek Szczepanek,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
“As usual there was a complex set of reasons. The black-necked grebe is a beautiful bird with an interesting breeding system. It usually breeds in colonies and it breeds together with black headed gulls, which they use as protection against predators.

“But the most important reason why we decided to select the black-necked grebe is that their numbers have been declining rapidly in the Czech Republic.”

The birds were quite common here back in the 50s and 60s and they are still quite common in the neighbouring Poland and Germany. So what caused the dramatic drop in their numbers in our country?

“Indeed, in the 50s and 60s we had thousands of breeding birds, even in the 80s there were still a few thousand of these birds. But in the previous year, we found only 50 breeding birds on the whole territory of the Czech Republic.

“And you are right. In the neighbouring countries the population of black-necked grebes is more or less stable. So the decline is limited only to the Czech Republic and therefore we can expect that the reason is here and we have enough evidence that it is connected mainly to the quality of water.”

So the black-necked grebe needs absolutely clean water.

“Yes. The black-necked grebe feeds on water invertebrates. It dives and it finds its prey by sight so indeed it needs clean water to find the insects. The problem is that a typical Czech fishpond nowadays is full of carp and full of nutrients, which means the water is not clean enough for grebes and for other birds as well to find food there.”

So unless we improve the birds’ natural habitat, we cannot stop the decline in their numbers.

Black-necked grebe,  photo: Hapsiainen,  public domain
“That is correct. Unless we do something with the way we manage the fishponds, which basically means to have less carp, but it also has to do with the structure of the vegetation at the fishponds and the manipulation of the water level in the breeding season, to prevent their nests being flooded. So it’s a complex situation but as a starting point, making cleaner water for grebes is a crucial point.”

Where can we see the black-necked grebes today in the Czech Republic?

"Well, in the breeding season, in spring, there are a few sites, where we can see them. There are the Hostivické fishponds near Prague, fishponds near Pardubice and we still can probably find some in southern Bohemia in the region of Třeboň, which used to be a famous area for the grebes and other water species, but it is not the case anymore.

“It is hard to suggest a single place because the species is declining so rapidly that we don’t even know whether there will be the same number of birds as last year. So if someone wants to see the black-necked grebe, I would suggest consulting the webpages of the Czech Society for Ornithology, because we have a dedicated portal for all bird observations.”