Great Crested Grebe Breeding Season

I had wanted to watch Great Crested Grebes throughout their breeding season, capturing the sequence of events and decided to share the encounter with you on this page. 

It gave me an opportunity to indulge my passion for nature photography and document the lives of these graceful divers. Little did I know, I was about to begin an unforgettable adventure that would leave me in awe of their resilience and beauty. 

You can find these birds in flooded gravel pits, reservoirs and rivers throughout the country, but this story plays out on one of the lakes at Barnwell Country Park in Northamptonshire. 

When I was just a kid growing up spotting one of those elegant water birds with their chestnut and black head plumes was a rare treat. 

Here in the East of England, Great Crested Grebes are now quite common and as a species are green-listed (least concern), but that wasn't always the case.

In the 19th century there were only 42 pairs left in the UK, due to the trend to use their crest feathers to decorate posh ladies hats! A matter of great conservation concern, which lead to the founding of the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). 

The Early Spring Courtship Display

My camera skills lay in still photography, but I did film this little clip of the precursor to the elaborate courtship dance. This occurs typically around March to May. 

Let me set the scene for you. Imagine a serene lake, the water glistening under the warm sun, and these majestic birds gliding across the surface with their striking black and chestnut head feathers. It was like witnessing a mesmerizing dance, as they presented each other with gifts of water weed and showed off their fancy breeding plumage.

In winter, when we see these birds on Grafham Water, their feathers are mostly black and white.

Grebe from hide

I took this bird's picture from a hide at Rutland Water. The hide let me get up close, giving a much better view of the beautiful head and neck decorations.

The Great Crested Grebes nest

Photo of Grebe pair

But the real magic happened when they started building their nest. I found the perfect spot to observe them from a respectful distance. They carried twigs and weeds across the water and built a floating platform anchored to vegetation. Before long, those precious eggs were laid.

I counted 5 eggs in the nest, which was a little unusual as the books told me that they tend to lay 3-4.

FUN FACT: Did You Know that Great Crested Grebes are said to be closely related to flamingos?

My Photography Gear

I was using a 400mm prime lens with a 1.4x extender on my Canon 7D Mark 2. I set up my tripod to keep the camera steady as I found handholding this combination tricky.

I have now changed to using a Canon R5 mirrorless camera and lens combo which is much lighter.

Great crested grebe pair on nest(Cropped) Grebes on nest with eggs

As the weeks passed, I witnessed the tireless efforts of the parent grebes, taking turns sitting on the eggs and diving for fish. 

It was like a perfectly choreographed routine, and I couldn't help but feel a sense of admiration for their dedication.

Great crested grebe incubating eggsIncubating the eggs

The Eggs Have Hatched!

And then, the moment I'd been waiting for – three eggs hatched! Those tiny, striped chicks snuggled up to their parents' feathers, and I swear, my heart melted.

If you look closely at the photograph below, you can just make out their striped little heads peeking out.

Three tiny baby grebes on mother's backThree tiny babies on mother's back

The parent birds were hard at work, constantly fishing and feeding their hungry babies. For hours, I stood there, mesmerised and I was fortunate enough to witness several successful catches.

Great crested grebes eat mainly fish but will also feed on aquatic invertebrates.

I also saw the parent birds feeding their own feathers to the babies. After researching this, it seems this helps with their digestion. 

The following photo is an extreme crop (so a little grainy because of the high ISO necessary) showing meal time for one chick. What a precious moment! 

Although tiny, those little bills could swallow surprisingly big fish.

Parent feeding tiny baby grebe
A grebe family with youngYoung grebe family

By the end of the month the three babies had taken to the water, although they still hitched a ride when possible.

Only Two Chicks Left

Of course, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. Nature can be harsh, and sadly, one of the chicks didn't make it.

But the two survivors thrived, growing bigger and stronger with each passing day.

Two baby grebesTwo baby grebes

Day by day, the adult birds left them alone as they went fishing, using their sharp, pink bills like daggers to catch their prey.

The babies still tried to catch a ride, even though they were getting too big now!

Baby grebe hitching a rideHitching a ride

I'll never forget the hilarious sight of those chubby babies begging for food with their piping calls, their little bottoms up in the air and legs paddling furiously.

Do you see how far back on their bodies those legs are? This makes them very clumsy looking when on land. 

Young grebe demanding food from parentYoung grebe demanding food

The stripes faded from their bodies. But they stayed on their heads and necks.

Grebe with larger chick
Young grebe shaking off water dropletsBaby grebe shaking off water droplets

As the Great Crested Grebe grows up, it still has the striped head for its first winter. I took this picture of a young one in October. It will take two years before it can breed.

Summer Came to an End

As the summer drew to a close, I felt a bittersweet sense of accomplishment. I had witnessed the entire breeding cycle of these incredible birds, from the courtship dance to the fledging of the juveniles. My camera had captured countless precious moments, and those images will forever serve as a reminder of the resilience, beauty, and fragility of life in the wild.

While only two chicks ultimately survived to fledge, their growth and development showed the parents' unwavering devotion.

And you know what? I can't wait to see those juveniles return to the lake all grown up and ready to start the cycle anew.

It's like watching your favourite TV show, but instead of binge-watching it on Netflix, you get to experience it in real-time, with all the drama, suspense, and heart-warming moments that nature has to offer.

So, my fellow nature enthusiast, if you ever get the chance to observe the Great Crested Grebes during their breeding season, do it!

It's an experience that will leave you in awe, fill your heart with wonder, and deepen your appreciation for the incredible world we live in.

You don't have to take photos, journaling your observations will help you learn more about their characters and behaviours. 

Until next time, keep those binoculars handy and your camera batteries charged, because who knows what other amazing wildlife encounters await us out there!

Juvenile still showing stripes on headJuvenile still showing stripes on head

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