A common breeding resident diving water bird found throughout the UK and renowned for its enchanting courtship rituals.
The great crested grebe is Europe’s largest member of the grebe family and arguably the most striking. Adult males and females are identical although both share different markings in summer and winter plumage. During the summer the bird is looking its finest with its distinctive black head plume and unique orange ruff below the chin at the top of the neck. The head plume splits in two at the top of the crown like a centre parting and faces backwards. The black head and crown colouration extend over the forehead to meet the top of the bird’s long pinkish grey bill. The face is white as is the front of the neck and the breast. The orange neck ruff is tinged black at its edges and the back and rear of the neck of the bird is a dull browny dark grey as are the markings on the top side of the wing, although there are bright white patches around the area of the scapulars. During the winter months, the ruff disappears to reveal an area of white feathers and white appears over the eye. The back of the bird darkens as does the rear of the neck. When swimming the great crested grebe displays its characteristic long upright slender neck. Juvenile birds have a pale grey upper body with a white breast and a distinctive black and white striped head.
Great Crested Grebe taking off from water
During summer months the bird can be heard making loud throaty barking noises which sound very similar to a terrier crossed with a quacking duck! This is often followed by short repeated ‘krrrrrrrrrrr – krrrrrrrrrrr’ sounds. During courtship the displays are often accompanied by ‘mewing’ sounds. Chicks mainly squeak or whistle particularly when begging for food.
Fish, crustaceans and aquatic invertebrates are all on the menu for the great crested grebe although the diet is mainly fish which are caught as the bird dives completely below the surface to pursue them. They will occasionally feed by just submerging their head although as expert swimmers and divers they will normally disappear completely below the surface and can remain thus for an average of up to 30 seconds.
Great Crested Grebe enjoying the catch
Although seen to frequent some coastal areas during winter months, great crested grebes prefer reservoirs, lowland lakes, gravel pits and slow moving rivers mainly located in central, eastern and southern England, north Wales and across the lowlands of central Scotland.
Obviously the best time to view these attractive birds is whilst they are in their summer breeding plumage and more particularly when the are engaged in their elaborate courtship dances. Being a water bird they spend almost all of their lives on the water and are uncomfortable on land being unable to walk properly or support their own weight. If they do venture on to land they are forced to almost drag themselves along being unable to stand upright. This is due to the fact that their legs are set very far back on their body rendering successful balance impossible. Rarely seen in flight, if startled they prefer to dive below the surface in order to escape or avoid predators.
Pair of Great Crested Grebe's performing the elaborate courtship dance - the 'weed dance'
Nests are constructed out of aquatic plant material and floated on the surface of the water, often at the water’s edge, anchored to nearby vegetation or built up from the bottom of the lake to stand just above the water level. One brood of 3 – 4 plain creamy white coloured eggs are laid between February to June and incubated for up to a month. Fledging occurs after seventy one to seventy nine days. The parents teach their young to swim and dive and can often be observed swimming with their young being carried on their back.
Grebe's nest floating on the waters surface
Fledglings being carried on back of parent
The expected lifespan of great crested grebes is between ten to fifteen years, although some ringed specimens have been found to exceed this figure.