I’m not a great ornithologist. I’m half blind (no matter what my contacts try to do) and certain birds just don’t really get me going – I’m not saying that I don’t think they’re not cute or appreciate their importance and need for protection. But for me to want to spend a while watching them and taking photos of them I need to have a certain excitement about my subject. I remember, about a year ago, my friend telling me he saw a great-crested grebe. It didn’t mean much to me. Until I understood just why these birds are something to be excited about.
Great-crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus)
Grebes are a family of migratory freshwater diving birds thought to be related to flamingos. They are very elegant-looking birds, with webbed toes that act as propellers. Their plumage is waterproof, which they use to control their buoyancy, and is eaten when preening (which are subsequently fed to their young)
Arguably the most visually stunning in the grebe family, the great-crested grebe has such stunning plumage that they were once almost hunted to extinction in the UK to meet the demands of fashion. Both males and females look very similar. Their chicks have these very cool striped necks and heads, which even extend onto the beak.
Great crested grebes also perform one of the most elaborate mating dancing of all the grebe family, in which they mirror each other’s movements. First with headshakes, and then they swim away from each other, submerge and return with weeds in their beaks. This is shown off to each other by rising up vertically against each other, furiously padding their feet, and moving their head from side to side,
Here’s a great video of their dancing by Ben Vallack
This grebe most frequently nests on lakes, reservoirs and estuaries, throughout most of the UK and Wales. You can see them all year round but their courtship dances are usually performed in late winter and is sometimes seen as the first sign of spring. They can be afraid of humans and dive a long distance to hide into the reeds.
Things to look out for
If you want to find yourself a pair of courting grebes, chances are they can be found on your local pond. They will stand out as slim, pale figures among the other waterfowl. To try and catch the dances watch for two birds that are swimming close to each other. When not courting they will spend most of their time fishing for food.
Here’s a great blog piece about a 2020V assignment to photograph courting grebes by Andy Parkinson.