The Great Crested Grebe is the largest member of the grebe family in Europe and a bit of a prima donna. This ballerina of the waterfowl can be found mainly on inland waters, though can be seen occasionally on the sea in winter.
The Great Crested Grebe is smaller than a Mallard, though with their long, gracious necks and dagger like bill they don't look it. They have a brown back, white neck and underparts, an orange brown crest and ear tufts, and a black crown. They often bob about with the head and neck lazily resting on their backs, showing off their white breast and making them look like something completely different. When flying, their long neck is extended, while their feet stick out at the back and large white patches are visible on the wings. When disturbed, they prefer to dive than fly as they are excellent underwater swimmers. You will rarely see them on land as, like the Tufted Duck, their legs are set back for diving and they can't walk very well. The Great Crested Grebe's call is a growling, "gorr, gorr" almost dog like.
They are diving experts and can stay submerged for over half a minute or more when catching fish to eat. If you see a bird on the water that keeps disappearing, the chances are it is a grebe. They feast on roach, rudd, minnows, eels and frogs. Unfortunately, their love of fish does not make them best friends with fishermen.
Their pièce de résistance is their elaborate courtship display with the shaking of heads and the presenting of weed. Once paired up, both adults help build a floating nest of aquatic vegetation attached to water plants like reeds. It often looks a bit rubbish and flimsy, but the grebes will work hard to keep it from falling apart. They lay 2-6 eggs over a period so not all the eggs hatch at once. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after 28 days. The young can swim soon after hatching and they ride on mum and dad's back, in their black and white stripy pyjamas, to keep them safe from pike and other predators. Mum and dad split the youngsters between themselves and the two groups are largely independent. The young grebes can finally fly after 71 days. They may have two broods in a season.
There are 10,000 Great Crested Grebes in Britain. This number swells to 20,000 in winter when northern grebes migrate south. Many local birds move to larger lakes or reservoirs in autumn. There are few Great Crested Grebes in the Scottish Highlands. Instead, they are spoilt with the Slavonian Grebes on Loch Ruthven. In Victorian times, the Great Crested Grebe was nearly hunted to extinction as their feathers were used in muffs for Victorian ladies. Fortunately these are no longer in fashion. More recently, the grebe population has benefitted from the construction of reservoirs and gravel pits.
Their Latin name is 'podiceps cristatus' which comes from the Latin 'podicis' for 'vent' and 'pes' for 'foot' which is a reference to the placement of a grebe's legs towards the rear of its body. The 'cristatus' bit means 'crested'.