Strictly Come Courting
As mists rise from the water’s surface on early spring mornings, love is in the air as great crested grebe pairs join together to dance.These graceful courtship rituals denote the start of the birds’ breeding season as the grebes look to successfully attract a mate with their synchronised salsas.
With orange and black head plumes spread wide, an elegant pattern of head shaking, bill-dipping, ‘mewing’ (calling) and preening culminates in the famous ‘penguin dance’.
The performance reaches an astonishing crescendo as a pair of great crested grebes will rush together, paddling their feet frantically to raise upright from the water. Then, standing chest to chest, they flick 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.
In time, a suitably enamoured pair will move into their nest, floating safely in the reedy margins of the lake shore.
You may stand a chance to observe this impressive display at any flooded gravel pits, reservoirs, lakes or canals where a pair of great crested grebes are residing.
Locally, Testwood Lakes Nature Reserve in Southampton and Blashford Lakes Nature in the New Forest offer opportunities to see these grebes. All you need is a pair of binoculars and a little patience – and perhaps a flask of something warm while you wait to enjoy the show.
If you’re lucky enough to see that famous dance, then remember to pop a note in your diary to return in five weeks’ time and you may be fortunate to witness the birds’ stripy ‘humbug’ hatchlings riding on their parents’ back.
Great crested grebes are the largest and most commonly seen grebe species in the UK. As well as the impressive plume on its head and bright coloured ruff on its neck, these handsome and sleek waterbirds have white cheeks, a dark cap, a white neck and a dark body.
The species was formerly a great rarity having been sought by milliners for its decorative plumage. However, the species represents a conservation success story.
W.H. Hudson, a pioneer in nature conservation and author of Hampshire Days (1903), campaigned for the protection of grebes from the demands of the fashion industry.
There are now estimated to be almost 5,000 breeding pairs in the UK.
Find out more about local wildlife by visiting the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust website at hiwwt.org.uk/wildlife
To learn more about local wildlife, visit the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust at website https://www.hiwwt.org.uk