Help identifying a bird.

farntfar

Venu d'un pays ou il ne pleut pas
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I'm sure we have some ornithologists in the Chrons. So perhaps you can help me.

We were walking along the Saone river, north of Lyon yesterday when all of a sudden this great flock of birds appeared.
They were flying close to the water, about a wingspan and would fly for about 100 yards and then land in the water and then a next group would arrive behind them and so on.

There must have been several hundreds of them, maybe a thousand or more and took several minutes to all pass. We were quite impressed.

They were divers (some would dive when they stopped), dark but not quite black, with the sharp beaks of a fisher. They were bigger than a duck but smaller than most geese. I immediately thought of grebes, but my knowledge is very limited, so don't take that too seriously. They didn't appear crested anyway, and had didn't have particularly long legs.

As they were going south, we assumed they were going on a winter migration. A bit late perhaps. (It's been pretty chilly (-2°C on average and -9°C at night) this last week/fortnight after being warmer.)

I didn't think to take a photo.
Anyway.
Any thoughts would be much appreciated.
 
No idea myself, but try the RSBP bird identification website.
Bird A-Z

If whatever it is appears in the UK, they will have it and most birds in UK are also in Europe and vice versa.
 
This has me baffled. Divers tend to be quite solitary in winter, and mostly coastal, I think. No grebe is larger than a duck, except perhaps the great crested, which is mostly white. But if they had sharp beaks, that doesn't leave much.

@farntfar , when did you see their legs to know how long they were? Did their flight/take-off seem weak or strong? Wings thin or stubby? How fast did they beat? When you say larger than a duck but smaller than most geese, what kind of duck? Mallard?
 
If they have sharp beaks then I'd presume they'd be wading birds, normally found on the coast. However, my knowledge in this area isn't great, and I certainly can't think of anything duck-sized.
 
Thanks for your replies everyone.

Thinking again, I probably overestimated their size, so certainly not bigger than a mallard. (We have quite small ducks around here. :) and loads of swans recently). We were more impressed by their numbers than anything else at the time.

Foxbat's black throated diver (Also known as an arctic loon apparently) looks very much like them, though none of the references I've found on the internet seem very specific about the size.

Do they migrate in big flocks like that, and along rivers (specifically the Saone)? Nothing seems to mention it either or have any pictures of them flying.
 
I found a video of black-throated divers flocking (though not in those numbers), and they do reach down to the Med in winter, so it's a possibility. Here's a (not very good) video of a red-throated flying. Did they have this kind of "feel" at all?


They also have to run along the water for quite long distances to take off, as in this video. Did you see this happening?

 
The only other bird that comes to mind, other than a diver, is a merganser, particularly a red-breasted merganser. Depending upon the light, the red (often a ruddy brown) could be taken for darker. They're only a touch smaller than divers and can look bigger than they are. Quite a distinctive bird. You said they did not have crests. Mergansers do, but they're nor always raised. My only caveat is that it's winter, so I'd expect male mergansers to be in breeding plumage, and brighter. Alternatively, goosanders (common mergansers in US) are black on top, white below in breeding plumage.

Not convinced either of these are the species you saw, but it's worth a shot, just in case.
p.s. Trivia fact: mergansers are fast in the air. Real fast.
 
Harebrain,
The take off seems about right, but, as I said, they seemed to then stay very close to the water and then land again not very far down river, wait until all the others had caught up (in the same manner) and then do it again.
It was about 2:30 in the afternoon. So maybe they'd all just had a big lunch.

Abernovo,
As just mentioned, it was early afternoon, and the sun was out, but I didn't notice any red or reddy brown.

Thanks for your ideas, guys.
 

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