Great Crested Grebes are starting to pair up, which they do between January and February, ready for the mating season. In the winter they tolerate each other, but when they pair up things change, they are very territorial, and fights can get very dramatic between the males.
Their displays are inspiring to watch, with head dancing, which is called the “Penguin Dance”, sometimes followed by the “Weed Dance”. The Grebes dive down under water and collect some weeds from the bottom and then come together, rising up out of the water, chest to chest, and paddling the feet to keep themselves above the water.
Another display very rarely seen is when the female runs away from the male and then stops and displays like a peacock. The male then appears from under the water in front of her, with his back to her, and slowly turns to face her, which then turns into the Penguin Dance.
Nest building depends on the weather. The female seems to do most of the nest building. When finished, they copulate on the nest, and the female lays her eggs there.
The chicks are called “Humbugs” because of their stripey appearance. They will then be carried on their parents’ backs for a couple of weeks to keep them safe from predators. The chicks can swim and go under water as soon as they are hatched.
In 2018 I was sitting beside the East Lake at Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. It was -4C early in the morning on 21 February. This was the start of my journey to capture the life cycle of this family of Great Crested Grebe over a year.
Due to weather conditions, they did not start building their nest until early April on a floating log on the East Lake. The female laid three eggs (they can lay up to four). After 27 days the first egg hatched. Normally the rest hatch two days apart, but sadly on this occasion only one egg hatched and they then abandoned the nest. After about 72 days the chick was driven away by the male as it is considered able to fend for itself.
The parents then returned to the nest to refurb it and started the mating procedure again. Only if food is available will they have two broods. Happily, this time they had four eggs and all four hatched. The parents take turns in carrying the chicks on their backs, while the other parent goes hunting for food, mainly fish.
After about 55 days, the male drove the oldest chick away, which sadly died a couple of days later, unable to feed itself. Then he drove the next to oldest away which also died, which left two chicks. The parents then took a chick each and they survived, the male drove the chicks away after reaching 72 days. Driving away the oldest chicks is nature’s way of protecting the Grebe population when there is not enough food to feed them all.
- In a future issue, we will return to the Grebes of Sevenoaks and explore the risks to their habitat by development, neglect and inertia.