Great Crested Grebes on floating nest

Great Crested Grebe on nestGreat Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) are common birds in Germany. Its population is therefore largely constant. Following severe persecution in the 19th century a significant recovery was observed since the mid-20th century. The grebes benefited mainly from the increase in the food supply of small fish in nutrient-rich waters. However, their habitat by water sports activities as well as fertilizers and pesticides from agriculture is also threatened from time to time. Not to be underestimated is the illegal persecution by fishermen.

It was a big surprise when people told me that in the immediate vicinity of my home a couple of grebes should breed. The area was well known as a recreational area – a lake with pedal boats, swimming & bathing areas, round trips, anglers and dog meeting points. I did not remember to have identified any riparian vegetation zone with reeds or rushes. Only mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) had their paradise on earth there, because they were fed by careless walkers regularly with tons of bread. At such a lake could never grebes breed, so I thought! So I let the matter rest.

About six weeks later I was looking for an opportunity to test the autofocus of my newly purchased camera, a Canon EOS 1 Mark IV with a Canon 400mm f4,0 DO. I remembered the Mallards again, and so I wanted to shoot some flight shots. So I went for the lake again. And the first thing I saw on the lake, of course, were the many paddle boats. But suddenly the unmistakable “KoorrKoorr” calls of a great crested grebe could be heard. You can imagine my face when I discovered between all the many pedalos the grebes in the middle of the lake.

Two adult birds with two young swam peacefully on the water. Mallards were quickly forgotten, and I went to check-out, where the grebes had brooded undisturbed. I looked a little closer to the lake and found the only possible place – a small overgrown with water lilies and pond area that was closed off to the open sea with a thick rope and buoys to boaters. There it had to be. Demands for residents of the lake confirmed my suspicion. It was the middle of July, and for the coming weeks and months, I made up my mind to watch the grebes and their way of life.

I read that that grebes build floating nests which are quite visible from afar. When the lake was covered with a layer of ice at the end of the year the grebes left one after another. My only hope was to make it the following year, since they had already once bred successfully. About two months later, in mid-February, the lake was still frozen over, and I made up my mind to continue my research in mid-April. It was early April, but then when I checked if they had come back. I was looking at the lake with binoculars and to my delight I discovered two grebes. Now, the question arose: Was it the same from the previous year? I went to the place where the birds had hatched the year before and noticed that there had been started with the construction of a courtship flat in the same place already. But, what the grebes had built up to that point did not look like anything at first glance. Everything was dragged from the lake: lily pads, thin twigs and thumb-thick branches. The nesting material was layered over each other and sank slowly again. Eventually, the platform began to wear. Now, fresh lily pads from the bottom of the lake were used to increase the construction. The fresh green of the leaves seduced some mallards to feet on them, but such thefts were punished with vehement attacks underwater.

Initial concerns that grebes could feel my presence as a nuisance, could not be confirmed. So it was possible for me to observe and photograph without any camouflage. The grebes focused on their initial nest. Other nests, called “ritual platforms,” ​​I could not detect. The whole attention of the two grebes focused on a single “Island of Love”. After this was looking fairly sturdy and stable, the female pushed his upper body on the edge of the island and jumped up on it with a set. Crouched low on the island and calling a quiet “KoorrKoorr”. Thus it attracted the partner to approach. The male circled excited the island of love, and then jumped with a huge leap from behind on the back of the female. Copulation was accompanied by more “Koorr-Koorr” calls until the males standing on the back jumped back into the water finally.

From science it is known, that there is a division of labor in the breeding business. However, it is difficult to determine any sexual characteristics. Because apart from a slight difference in size there is no certain indicator to identify in the field. Nesting and mating I observed in the following days, more and more frequently. About every 20 to 30 minutes eventually was given to me by this spectacle. As the first of the eggs was layed, I decided to leave the grebes temporarily, because I wanted to be there again shortly before hatching of the first youngs. Grebes breed 25 – 29 days, so I went back to my end of April grebes pair, since its first egg had been laid on 7th of April.

It was still very early in the morning and the sun was just beginning to work, when I reached the lake. A couple of fog lay over the water, and from a distance I heard the familiar “KoorrKoorr”. This morning atmosphere was a bit strange. Exited I went to the nest. Sleepy, his head in the chest plumage, one of the Great Crested Grebe was sitting on nest and fled when he saw me. Six clay-colored eggs I could count. The grebes remained short of the nest away and then jumped back with a set on the breeding island. Unlike the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) in which the female takes over the entire breeding business, the grebes share the “work” on the clutch. This change was made in the breeding regularly and, it seemed to me that it happened at a certain time.

Finally it was the right time! In early May I was able to observe the hatching of the first young. Suddenly one of the adult birds on the nest became restless and began to move, as if it no longer pleased him on the nest. Then he stood up, and between all the other eggs I saw the first black and white striped young. After bringing some order into the nest, the adult bird sat back. Like pulled by a magnet, the young began to crawl under his parent, only to climb from behind on the back of the warming plumage.

This spectacle was repeated the following day while the hatching of the second young could be observed. Now you could be curious about how feeding the pups and the breeding business in the next few days should proceed. The partner who was not involved in breeding and supervisory duties at the nest went in search of food for their offspring. It certainly was not always easy to get away with a fish in the appropriate size for the young grebes. Had an old bird a fish in its beak, the partner volunteered with a loud “Kocrr-Kocrr “and swam to the nest. By calling the offspring was compelled to stretch their little head through the plumage to receive the fish. Feeding a small fish proved to be harder than I thought.

When feeding, it was necessary to overcome several obstacles.:

Obstacle No. 1: The prey was not offered with the beak head first, but it was lying across the beak and had to be offered to the young side with the head first.

Obstacle No. 2: Usually the boys were sitting high up in the plumage of the brooding partner. Here, the boys had to bow out wide and make the lining bidding adult a long neck. Quite often it occurred that the young fell forward into the water.

Obstacle No. 3: Too large the fish! This issue was obviously managed by the grebes in the way, that they just ate the fish themself.

A fish that has not been accepted by the young grebes immediately, was dipped again into the water a couple of times by the adult bird and then offered again. It looked like as if the small fish should be very slippery, so the young could gobble him better. But not only the small fish were served, but now and then a feather from the breast plumage of adult birds, too. This additional food need grebes necessarily to digest their fish meal.

In the coming days more young grebes slipped out of the eggs. Overall, there were now four cubs. From now on small excursions were undertaken together on the lake. At times, the adult birds had to climb the nest to incubate the remaining two eggs, but those nesting attempts were increasingly rare. Then, after about 10 days after the first chick was hatched, the grebes had lost interest in the rest of the scrim and swam among all the pedal boats on the open water.

The grebes can be seen throughout Europe except in the most northern edge of the continent. Long time grebes were tracked as “fish-eaters” as the Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) before it was realized that they mostly prey as underwater hunters mainly only small fish but also aquatic insects and small crustaceans. The grebes belongs to the family of grebes. There are also the small Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), the  Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) and the Black-necked Grebe as breeding birds in Germany. The Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) occurs in Germany just as (rare) migratory bird.

To cope with the growing demand for top shots of the rarer species of the Palearctic Bird-Lens is keen to enrich the range of pictures of birds you can find in the western palearctic.  Trips to remote places like the Macin Mountains in Romania or to tourist spots like the Canaries to capture images of rare birds of western palearctic were very successful. The nice images you find in the gallery are only a first impression, what you will find in the gallery in the “Pictures Shop” very soon. Just give me a message, if I could serve you with an image needed before the new pictures are online.

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