The dance of the great crested grebe

The dance of the great crested grebe

Posted 12th Apr 2018

The mists are rising from the water's surface on early spring mornings, with great crested grebe pairs coming together to dance

With their orange and black head plumes spread wide, an elegant ritual of head shaking, bill-dipping and preening finishes with the famous 'penguin dance', when the pair rush together, paddling their feet frantically to raise upright from the water, and standing chest to chest, flicking a beak-full of water weed at each other. It finishes with one final shake of the head and the dropping of the weed - the deal is now clinched.

The 19th century saw a fashion for bird plumes, with the great crested grebe nearly driven to extinction in Britain. The head plumes (or 'tippets') were used on hats and densely-feathered 'grebe fur' made into the lining of fashionable capes and muffs.

By the 1860s, it was thought there were as few as 30 pairs left in the country.

The plight of the bird was one of the triggers behind the birth of modern conservation movement. Attitudes and laws were changed - now there are around 4,600 pairs, with great crested grebes seen dancing on many park lakes, reservoirs, gravel pits and canals.

How to do it

Great crested grebes are distributed widely across lowland Britain. Find a gravel pit, lake or canal with a pair in residence and try your luck - you can make things more comfortable by settling in to a bird hide at a wetland nature reserve. All you will need is a pair of binoculars and a little patience - you may want a thermos of hot tea too. If you're lucky enough to see the final penguin dance, then come back in five weeks' time and you should be able to see their humbug babies riding on their parents' back.

If you can't get to the special places listed below, your local park lake may not be home to great crested grebes, but look out for coot. Although they're not as extravagant as grebes, their courtship display involves pairs bowing in front of each other and nibbling the top of each other's head, with wings raised and tail fluffed up. Coots are also very territorial, and will frequently chase other birds off from their patch.

Special spots

Tring Reservoirs in Hertfordshire was where Julian Huxley first studied the behaviour and courtship display of the great crested grebe, then a great rarity, publishing his landmark paper in 1914 describing the dance for the first time. And the grebes are still here, presenting each other with their weed gifts and dancing their dance.

Buckinghamshire, College Lake

Cambridgeshire, Grafham Water

Derbyshire, Hilton Gravel Pits

Denbighshire, Gors Maen Llwyd (Llyn Brenig)

Derbyshire, Willington Gravel Pits

Essex, Abberton Reservoir

Hampshire, Blashford Lakes

Lincolnshire, Deeping Lakes

Lancashire, Mere Sands Wood

Lancashire, Wigan Flashes

London, Woodberry Wetlands (open from Easter 2016)

Nottinghamshire, Attenborough

Perthshire, Loch of the Lowes

Staffordshire, Croxall Lakes

Yorkshire, Staveley

Text and information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts / image courtesy of ©

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