Great crested grebe (c) Margaret Holland
These slinky water birds are famous for their wonderful courtship dance, a ritual fit for ‘Strictly’.
All you need is a pair of binoculars and a little patience… although a flask of hot chocolate might be appreciated too
As mists rise from the water’s surface on early spring mornings, great crested grebe pairs join together to dance. With orange and black head plumes spread wide, an elegant ritual of head shaking, bill-dipping and preening culminates in the famous ‘penguin dance’, when the pair rush together, paddling their feet frantically to raise upright from the water, standing chest to chest, flicking a beak-full of water weed at each other before one final shake of the head and the weed is dropped, and the deal is clinched.
The 19th century saw a fashion for bird plumes, and the great crested grebe was almost driven to extinction in Britain, the head plumes (or ‘tippets’) used on hats and densely-feathered ‘grebe fur’ made into the lining of fashionable capes and muffs. By the 1860s there were maybe as few as 30 pairs left in the whole country.
The plight of the great crested grebe was one of the triggers for the birth of the modern conservation movement: attitudes and laws were changed, and there are now around 4,600 pairs, and great crested grebes can be seen dancing their dance on many park lakes, reservoirs, gravel pits and canals.
How to do it
Great crested grebes are widely distributed across lowland Britain. Find a gravel pit, lake or canal with a pair in residence and try your luck. To make things more comfortable, settle in to a bird hide at a wetland nature reserve. All you need is a pair of binoculars and a little patience… although a thermos of hot tea might be appreciated too. If you are lucky enough to see that final penguin dance, then come back in five weeks’ time and you should be able to see their humbug babies, riding on their parents’ back.
If you can’t get to the special places listed below… Your local park lake may not be home to great crested grebes, but look out for coot. Although not as extravagant as grebes, their courtship display involves pairs bowing in front of each other and nibbling the top of each other’s head, with wings raised and tail fluffed up. Coots are also very territorial, frequently chasing other birds off from their patch. From the comfort of your computer, you can also see some great footage of grebes going about their business at the BBC website
Tring Reservoirs in Hertfordshire was where Julian Huxley first studied the behaviour and courtship display of the great crested grebe, then a great rarity, publishing his landmark paper in 1914 describing the dance for the first time. And the grebes are still here, presenting each other with their weed gifts and dancing their dance.
Buckinghamshire, College Lake
Cambridgeshire, Grafham Water
Derbyshire, Hilton Gravel Pits
Denbighshire, Gors Maen Llwyd (Llyn Brenig)
Derbyshire, Willington Gravel Pits
Essex, Abberton Reservoir
Hampshire, Blashford Lakes
Lincolnshire, Deeping Lakes
Lancashire, Mere Sands Wood
Lancashire, Wigan Flashes
London, Woodberry Wetlands (open from Easter 2016)
Perthshire, Loch of the Lowes
Staffordshire, Croxall Lakes
Great crested grebes © www.alastairmarshphotography.co.uk