(2) Great Crested Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Today we look at a diving bird that in the past was sought after for fashion in the 19th century.
These beautiful birds were caught, skinned and made into ladies hats so much that they were reduced in numbers in the UK to fewer than fifty pairs. Now with fashions changing, they have built up to between six and seven thousand pairs, which are an incredible recovery.
These birds are a pleasure to watch at any time, but in the breeding season they put on one of the finest displays that you will ever see. They great each other with head shakes, then the male?,(It is hard to be sure as both sexes are identical)will dive under the water and surface with vegetable matter and offer it to the female as nest material, then they raise themselves up high with fast paddling feet and swing their heads side to side
These actions are repeated at frequent intervals, so you should see it happen before too long. The colour of these birds at breeding time is a sight to beheld, with the crown black with prominent russet and black head plumes (erected during display). Upper parts and tail brown, throat, breast, and belly white. Bill red, straight and sharply pointed with a matching red eye.
These birds like peace and quiet and try to keep away from lochs and reservoirs that are used for fast sports like water skiing and the like. They lose a lot of energy flying away from fast boats, and will soon tire as they seek a quieter area. They don't bother with fishermen and walkers, only keeping a short distance away from them for safety reasons.
They have 3-4 white eggs laid in a nest of floating aquatic material anchored to surrounding vegetation. These eggs will soon be stained by water plants on the nest, making identification harder. When the eggs hatch, out pops fluffy striped chicks which are divided between both adults who will feed and look after them, sometimes quite far from each other.
They also carry the chicks on their back when they become tired or cold, and as they get bigger it can be quiet comical looking at what appears to be a grebe with two or more heads. Like all diving birds, as they dive it leaves their chicks vulnerable to predators like pike, gulls and now even mink are culprits.
As I have mentioned before, mink are versatile hunters that are at home on land, in water and in trees, causing problems to eggs and chicks Grebes are expert under the water, travelling a good distance from where they dived, which in turn has the chicks in a state if there is trouble about, but as the chicks get bigger they can dive away from danger themselves.
When leaving the nest to go feeding adults will cover the eggs with weeds so that they will not be spotted by crows etc., or by passing humans. The nest will at this point look empty. If however they do not have time to cover up, they will slip off the nest and travel away from it under water as far as they can before surfacing. Woe betides any other grebe that enters their area. I have watched many fights on our lochs; the worst scenario was when last year two pairs built their nests within 50 metres from each other. The squabbles went on all day and every day, with each of them blaming the other for being "neighbours from hell". After the eggs hatched they were able to move farther away from each other, so at peace at last reined for a short while. Not all of our lochs have Great Crested Grebes, as they seem to be very particular where they stay. Yet one loch can have three pairs on it every year. They like at least three acres with plenty of plant life, which they eat at times, although they mostly eat small fish, insects and molluscs. We do get visits from other grebes, the one that we see most often is the Slavonian Grebe, which spends its time moving from loch to sea when it is in our vicinity. The most popular of them all and one that I have covered before is The Little Grebe, who frequents all our lochs and shores as well. They seem to live in harmony all the time as I have seen several of them feeding together quite happily. There are two more grebes to be seen in Britain, the Red-necked and the Black- necked varieties, but as yet I have not seen them on Bute, but someday I may.
First Published in the Buteman 08-11-2002