December 2011 - Great Crested Grebe


Great crested grebe family - Taken by Lin at the UEA, summer 2011

In my walks around the lake at the UEA I often see a resident pair of great crested grebes. These beautiful birds, with their ornate head plumes and striking plumage, were hunted to near extinction in the nineteenth century so that their feathers could adorn ladies hats and other garments. Their head plumage in summer is the most colourful. In winter the plumage takes on a duller, whiter appearance.  

Great crested grebes are excellent swimmers and divers, pursuing their fish prey underwater. If fish prey is scarce, they will also feed on small crustaceans, insects and even frogs. They hardly ever set foot on land as their legs are set relatively far back, making it difficult for the birds to walk. They nest at the edge of the water (or as at the University of East Anglia (UEA) this summer, in the middle of the lake where there is shallow water), thus enabling them to get straight from the nest to the water without the need of walking. The nest is made from reeds and other plant material and often floats on the surface of the water. Usually 2 eggs are laid and as soon as these hatch the young (striking with black and white zebra like stripes on their heads) are able to swim and dive. The adults habitually carry the young on their backs until they get too heavy and threaten to sink the parent bird. To start with one parent will carry the young while the other hunts for food. As they get older swimming lessons are enforced by the parent birds as they manoeuvre away from the young or dive leaving the youngsters without their ‘raft’. Youngsters will loose their zebra like markings as they become adult.  

The great crested grebe has an elaborate mating display with much shaking of their heads and head ducking in unison with each other. Sometimes they rise right out of the water in their enthusiasm for the display. For those interested and have access to the internet, type into a search engine Great Crested Grebe Courtship Display and watch the various videos available there.  

Luckily due to conservation efforts the birds are now thriving in Norfolk with a conservation status ‘green’ or ‘least concern’ with reports of 9,400 breeding pairs in the UK (RSPB data).

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