One of North America’s largest grebe species, red-necked grebes have a distinctive chestnut-and-black summer plumage and an eye-catching courtship ritual that can be seen at shallow lakes across the northern hemisphere as pairs form at the start of the breeding season.
Red-necked Grebe in winter plumage
Juvenile Red-necked Grebe
Red-necked Grebe in-flight over natural habitat
Red-necked Grebe adult with young riding on her back
40cm to 46cm
77cm to 85cm
700g to 900g
In the breeding season, male red-necked grebes have a distinctive, contrasting plumage, with a black crested cap, and a gray cheek patch extending from under the eye to the throat. The foreneck and upper breast is a deep chestnut red, fading to a paler belly and grayish-white underparts. Their back and wings are a deeper charcoal-brown, with some white on the wings and undertail.
Eyes are brown and the bill is long and pointed, with a black base and yellow edges. Their legs – positioned towards the rear of the body, which makes walking on land rather cumbersome – are black.
In winter, males lose their distinctive coloring, becoming mainly gray and white, and resemble nonbreeding great crested grebes, although their shorter, thicker necks can tell them apart.
Female red-necked grebes are similar to males but can be told apart by comparing the brightness of their plumage. During the breeding season, females resemble males but their coloring is more subdued, with light brown and gray replacing the more vibrant red and black. Non-breeding females are similar to non-breeding males, with more muted shades of their breeding plumage.
Juvenile red-necked grebes have a reddish-brown foreneck and dark brown upper parts. Their facial markings are distinctive, with two black streaks on an otherwise white face, a pale eyebrow, and a darker brown crown.
Pair of adult Red-necked Grebes in breeding plumage
Young Red-necked Grebe
Male red-necked grebes are commonly slightly larger than females and have longer bills but this is not always the case and cannot be used alone as an accurate method of distinguishing between the sexes.
Red-necked Grebe taking off from the water
Red-necked grebes are a vocal species, especially during the breeding season. A high-pitched ‘weet, weet, weet’ alarm call is heard when their nest or young are threatened. A mournful moaning sound is used as a contact call, during courtship, and when communicating with a mate.
Pair of Red-necked Grebes sounding out an alarm call
The diet of a red-necked grebe changes throughout the year according to habitat and seasonal availability of prey.
Aquatic insects, crustaceans, and fish are important throughout the year, usually caught underwater. Red-necked grebes are proficient divers and can reach depths of between 2 and 5 m, staying underwater for up to a minute when in pursuit of prey. In the breeding season, larger prey items, including frogs, newts, and salamanders, are taken.
In their early weeks, red-necked grebes’ diet consists mainly of insects and aquatic invertebrates, fed by both parents. Crustaceans and leeches are also particularly important. By six to seven weeks, they gain independence and no longer rely on their parents for food.
Red-necked Grebe with caught prey
During the breeding season, red-necked grebes prefer freshwater habitats, particularly small lakes, marshes, and ponds. Shallow, vegetated wetlands are favored, surrounded by forested land.
Wintering territories are primarily located in coastal bays and estuaries, with deeper water and an abundance of fish. Marine waters are preferred, but inland lakes may also be visited.
Three separate breeding ranges of red-necked grebes exist.
In North America, the species breeds in western Canada, the northwest United States, and Alaska. In Asia, red-necked grebes nest in eastern Russia, north-eastern China, and northern Japan. Further into Europe and Central Asia, breeding grounds of the species are located in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. To the east, the range extends to western Siberia and as far south as Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
Wintering populations are found in coastal waters from the Aleutian Islands as far south as California, and along the Atlantic coast, occasionally as far south as Florida. In Asia, the seas around Japan and Korea are a winter destination for the populations that breed in far-eastern Russia. European breeding populations of red-necked grebes mostly head to wintering grounds on the North, Black, Mediterranean, and Caspian seas.
North American populations of red-necked grebes are estimated at between 45,000 and 100,000 individuals. The Western European population was thought to be approximately 35,000 pairs, with the highest numbers in Finland, Poland and Germany.
Although they are not considered a particularly rare bird, red-necked grebes are not spotted as commonly as many other waterbirds, and the maximum global population of the species is estimated at 290,000.
In the UK, red-necked grebes are one of the rarest breeding waterbirds with between 1 and 20 breeding pairs each summer. Sightings become marginally more common in winter, with the arrival of around 60 migrants from northern Europe annually.
Family of Red-necked Grebes swimming on a lake
Red-necked grebes breed in the interior of Alaska and move coastwards in winter months. The western United States offers good chances of sightings, in particular Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Henry’s Lake in Idaho, and several small lakes across Montana. The Great Lakes region is a popular spot for migration stopovers and for winter visitors.
More than 70 percent of the North American population of red-necked grebes breed in Canada, primarily in the west of the country, but in winter can be found along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The Great Lakes are a prime spot for both breeding and wintering red-necked grebes, and sightings of large numbers are regularly reported at Lake Ontario.
Breeding sites of red-necked grebes are kept secret to avoid potential disturbances, but in the past have been on the Scottish coast and near The Wash estuary. Winter sightings have been made off the eastern coast of the British Isles, particularly in south-east England.
Red-necked Grebe swimming on a lake
On average, the lifespan of a red-necked grebe is between 6 and 9 years. Breeding is possible in one-year-old birds, although is more common from the age of 2.
Wetland mammals such as mink and otters are among the main predators of red-necked grebes, particularly during the nesting season. Birds, including gulls, ravens, and birds of prey, may opportunistically raid nests and steal eggs. Large fish, such as northern pike, are a threat to young red-necked grebes in their early weeks on the water.
The Migratory Birds Treaty Act of 1918 in the United States and the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 in the UK both protect red-necked grebes against being killed, injured, traded, or taken into captivity.
There are no immediate or significant threats against the future survival of red-necked grebes, and they are currently classed as a species of least concern globally. In the UK, they have Red status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list due to the extremely low breeding numbers there.
Large numbers of red-necked grebes are caught as bycatch annually in the Baltic Sea, and the construction of wind turbines is also an increasing cause of mortality, with the species’ nocturnal migration habits making collisions relatively common.
Pair of Red-necked Grebes during the breeding season
Sheltered spots on shorelines close to open water or floating mats of vegetation on a lake, tethered to aquatic plants or submerged reeds are typical nest sites for red-necked grebes. Males and females construct nests together, using underwater vegetation, bulrushes, and decaying plant matter to form a mound, with an internal depression in which the eggs are laid.
Most red-necked grebes have returned to their breeding grounds by April and May, or earlier in some cases. A period of courtship and association on breeding grounds occurs before nesting begins, with the peak egg-laying period being in May and June. One brood is typical, and second broods may be attempted if an earlier nesting attempt fails.
Incubation lasts for between 21 and 33 days, with males and females taking turns to brood the eggs. After hatching, young red-necked grebes spend much of the first two to three weeks nestled between the wings on the back of either parent.
Eggs are elongated, measuring 51 mm by 34 mm (2 in by 1.3 in), and are chalky white in appearance, although maybe pale blue when they are first laid. A typical clutch contains between 3 and 5 eggs.
After arrival on nesting grounds in spring, red-necked grebes pair up with their mate following elaborate courtship displays. They remain together for the duration of the breeding season but part ways once breeding is complete and form larger groups ahead of fall migration.
In subsequent years, it’s most usual for new pairs to form, although when both former mates return to the same nesting spot, occasional reports of ‘re-pairings’ have been recorded.
Red-necked Grebe at the nest
Although they are not a naturally aggressive species, defensive behavior will be displayed during the nesting season when a threat is sensed near the nest site.
Overnight roosting sites are found on the water, where several red-necked grebes may settle together, offering safety in numbers and eliminating the threat of being disturbed by land predators.
Red-necked Grebe in-flight
Red-necked grebes are relatively short-distance migrants, leaving their freshwater breeding sites to head to marine waters from July onwards. Migration routes largely follow an east-to-west direction rather than north-to-south. Return migration to breeding territories begins in March.
The Horned Grebe is a widespread but globally threatened waterbird that has a dramatic makeover between breeding and non-breeding plumage. Known as Slavonian Grebes in the United Kingdom, these diving hunters are most abundant in North America and relatively rare in the Old World.
The little grebe may be tiny compared to its relative the great-crested grebe, but is a skilled diver and has a reputation for being noisy and feisty, with an excellent survival instinct. Little grebes, also known as dabchicks, have perfected the art of disappearing underwater at the first sign of threat, only to resurface a safe distance away.
Great Crested Grebe
A common breeding resident diving water bird found throughout the UK and renowned for its enchanting courtship rituals.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.