It's Valentine’s Day soon. Perhaps you’ll buy a card, choose a bunch of flowers or reserve a table for two to show your loved one you care. For most courting birds, however, such gestures would not be nearly enough to woo a suitor.
Pairs of great crested grebes need to be congratulated for putting in the most effort in this department. Their courtship dance is surely the most elaborate of any bird on the
British Isles. For them, courting is multi-staged and unfolds over a number
of weeks. It involves carefully choreographed displays of head shaking, diving,
ritualised preening, some serious feather fluffing as well as a finale of the
well-known but seldom seen ‘reed dance’.
In Olympic terms, their display would deserve a silver medal, bettered perhaps only by that of the delightful bower birds of
possibly narrowly pipping the South American manakins to the post. Yet, whilst for the other two contenders it is the male
alone who leads the dance, the grebe’s courtship is performed equally by both
partners. The courtship begins in January when both male and female
transform their plumage from a drab off-white and muddy matte brown to
his-and-hers matching breeding finery. Their heads are adorned with a double crest and orange and black
ruff. Their dazzling white faces set off a glinting ruby eye. It’s difficult, but not impossible to distinguish the male
from the female. The male’s crest is fractionally more magnificent and his body
Large lakes can accommodate quite a number of grebes and as they start to divide into pairs, they carve out territories and draw invisible boundaries on the water’s surface. Competition for the best fishing and nesting sites is fierce. But once resolved the elaborate courtship can begin. I watched a pair of grebes for a week one February and was rewarded with a magnificent display. First, the male caught three small fish and ate them whole. Then, he caught a huge nine inch one which he gleefully presented to his mate. He was showing her that he could easily provide for her and their family together, given the chance.
She was clearly impressed with this engagement present and to my amazement swallowed the fish whole. She had found her match. Simultaneously they turned to face each other, held their heads high and, with their crests and facial ruffs erect and extended, started to wave their heads from side to side repeatedly. As one bird looked one way the other looked in the opposite direction with precision timing as if they were too timid to look each other in the eye.
This ‘face-off’ dancing went on for nearly a minute and was followed by ritualistic preening. Each bird took turns to select a long feather from their back and extend it out to the side in a perfect arch, as if casually grooming. The synchronisation was so perfect that it was almost as if they were working as one.
The courtship process was intense. Often, a fishing break was required in the midst of the proceedings or time out taken to patrol the boundaries. If the male spotted any other grebe on his patch, he swam towards it like a guided missile; head and face flush to the water. At the last moment he flew above the surface, paddling, splashing and generally making as much noise as possible in order to be seen both by the intruder and his own mate. Sometimes, he decided on a cunning surprise attack diving down and then grabbing the bewildered intruder from below.
This aggression is mainly directed at sub-adult grebes; only these younger ones would be naïve enough to enter another’s arena. However, it is not only directed at their own species. As I watched, the grebe cunningly dived below a pair of
Canada geese and began viciously
assaulting them. He kept pecking the geese hard with his razor sharp beak
until they had no option but to swim ashore and seek refuge on dry land. It was hilarious to watch these large birds, who are often
the playground bullies of the waterways, leaping up and down from the water’s
surface in fright.
Smug in the knowledge that his lady had watched the entire episode, the grebe headed back to her. As he approached he dived down just below the water’s surface, creating an impressive bow wave from which he emerged, just as it broke, by her side. Talk about cool!
Duly impressed by his antics, she greeted him with wings splayed, head held back and calling, as if she were cheering. He went one better and finished his performance with an upright dance, effortlessly treading water in front of her. More head-wagging and preening continued throughout the day. But just as I was about to pack up the moment I had been waiting for; the crowning glory of the water courtship commenced – the reed dance at last.
The grebes swam away from each other and dived down simultaneously only to reappear on the surface at the same time. The male was holding a clump of weed plucked from the bottom of the lake and I had my camera poised. The female, I noticed, had been distracted while she was under and had caught a fish. The male rushed towards her, weed to the ready, his head and neck low in the water. Then he too realised that she was holding a fish in her beak and not the clump of weed he was hoping for. He dropped his weed instantly, almost embarrassed that he had misread the situation.
It was night fall by this time and I packed up and returned the following morning at dawn, weighed down with cameras, tripod and flask. Just as I reached the edge of the lake I noticed the full reed dance being performed right in front of me. The climax of the prenuptials involved both birds treading water bolt upright breast to breast with beaks full of weed whilst also shaking their heads from side to side. It was over in a flurry and unfortunately my camera was still in my bag.
I cursed myself, if only I had walked faster or not spent so long over breakfast. You have to be patient to see the full courtship of a great crested grebe, but you need a bit of luck to photograph it too. Grebes don’t mate for life so they may well be reed dancing with someone new next year. A season of devotion brings no guarantees, in spite of all their effort.
The reed dance only lasts for a few seconds but it something that will stay in my memory forever.