Wildlife - the great crested grebe

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 April 2017

Great crested grebe, pair displaying

Great crested grebe, pair displaying

paul hobson

Paul Hobson records the courtship of the great crested grebes

Great crested grebe, pair displayingGreat crested grebe, pair displaying

I have always found our (myself included, I must admit) increasing fascination with the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing something of an oddity. The art, grace, serenity and beauty seem so out of keeping with the usual fare served up by our TV channels. True, it still caters to the modern cult of celebrity (some of whom I have never heard of) but that probably has more to do with my own choice of media viewing – as an ageing child of the 1970s – than anything else. Every time I watch ‘Strictly’ (and that’s every week during the autumn), I try to match the dance moves with those I’ve seen in the natural world. Most of the time this is difficult, although the Argentine tango always brings to my mind the nervous dance of small, male spiders trying to woo their larger, potentially cannibalistic, mates.

However, the dance that really has echoes in the natural world is the Viennese waltz. The subtle head movements and serene quality of the pair floating across the dance floor can certainly be seen in the elegant courtship of great crested grebes in spring.

Luckily, in Derbyshire we have many opportunities to watch this most elaborate of bird dances throughout early spring. Virtually every lake, reservoir and many of the large ponds will have a pair or more of grebes. In particular, the lakes at Hardwick, Butterley, Staunton Harold and Williamthorpe and the River Trent are usually graced by their presence.

Courtship is an interesting part of the lives of most bird species. It is usually a prelude to copulation and if the male doesn’t share any nesting duties with the female (as, for example, in the case of the woodcock), that is the sum total of the courtship. However, when the pair has to share the incubation of eggs and raising the young, it can take on a longer, more complex form of behaviour, and the pinnacle of this is perhaps most easily seen with great crested grebes.

Great crested grebe, pair displayingGreat crested grebe, pair displaying

Why courtship is necessary has always been open to interpretation. We can describe the act simply enough, but to produce an explanation is far more difficult. The most often repeated reason is that the pair has to establish a bond, a level of trust in each other and this is not easy as they, like most wild birds, are wary and fearful of other birds.

One grebe swimming straight up to another is not always the best idea, it could end in a fight and potential harm. Courtship slowly breaks down the wariness and fear that has dominated the individual’s behaviour over the preceding winter.

Great crested grebes may over-winter on their breeding water. If they don’t they tend to arrive in February or March. Initially the pair are wary of each other. The female may call to advertise her presence to her mate or to seek a new mate if she is a young bird. If the pair has recently arrived, the female will occasionally adopt the ‘cat attitude’ where she floats and spreads and tilts her wings to show their markings to her new mate. Once they start to accept each other the most common display is coordinated and beautiful head shaking. The birds glide up to each other and shake their heads sideways, sometimes quickly, sometimes more slowly. One bird will often dip its head or bend backwards and ‘habit preen’ (not real preening) by lifting a wing feather with its bill. Head shaking then resumes. The pair perform this ‘waltz’ most often early in the season and up until the laying of the first egg. After this, it may still occur, perhaps stimulated by another pair intruding into their territory, but generally they tend to head shake less after eggs are laid.

The most famous part of the courtship – though it is far rarer than head shaking – is the ‘penguin’ or ‘weed’ dance. This can be initiated by either sex. Both birds swim underwater and gather a beak full of weeds. They then swim towards each other and, as they get close, rear up out of the water, seeming to stand upright and, holding the weed amid the splashing of their feet, engage in the head shaking. As they finish they release the weed and sink back into the water.

Once any display is over the pair may part and simply go fishing, swim to the nest or start nest building. This may last only minutes. One bird may stay near the nest and the other will usually swim away to go fishing. Often the end of a lovely bout of head shaking results in one bird preening. This always ends with a shake and a rearing out of the water as the wings are flapped quickly for literally a couple of seconds. The grebes will engage in courtship right up to egg laying and they may go through many dances each day for weeks on end.

Strictly’ is absent from our TV screens during spring but anyone feeling deprived can easily seek a remedy by spending a few hours sitting in the warm March or April air on the banks of one of Derbyshire’s many beautiful lakes and reservoirs. In some cases, such as Codnor Park reservoir, there’s even a well-placed ‘butty’ wagon to make the morning especially worthwhile!

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