Finding Out About… Great Crested Grebes

Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces his next in a series of informative articles.

A Brief Social and Cultural History

I first knew of this spectacular bird from my long past birdwatching days in Yorkshire where it was, all those years ago, mainly a summer visitor, leaving us at the onset of colder weather in late autumn.

Many of these northern breeders may end up at places like Grafham water, which can attract upwards of 300 birds during the winter months, whilst nationally the UK/Ireland may, at this time of year, host between 7-10,000 birds.  However, this is nothing compared to the Netherlands where The Iysselmeer may hold around 20,000 birds-quite a sight, I can assure you.  These Grebes originate from all over their widespread European breeding areas.

There can be no British bird that has been the subject of man’s greed selfishness, so much so that from being numerous and well distributed in the early Victorian age, by 1860,  there were only 42 pairs remaining, mainly on the Cheshire meres and scattered around East Anglia.

The plumage trade was responsible for this almost extermination and it is recorded that by 1845 a Grebe skin “fur” would change hands for 10shillings-how much in today’s money? They were used for high fashion items such as muffs and stoles.

The passing of a bird protection act in 1869 helped save the last few pairs, but it was clearly a change of fashion brought about the passing of Queen Victoria was a major factor in the recovery.

However, as the hand of man almost led to its extinction in Britain, it was indeed man that inadvertently stepped in and proved its ultimate salvation.

As the human population soared, so did the demand for clean water-this resulted in many reservoirs being constructed across the UK. More people, more building work, and so a huge increase in demand for sand and gravel, so, as you know Paxton Pits is just one example of the large-scale growth of these wonderful Grebe friendly habitats.

The change in fortune of the Grebe is well documented. No nests  were located in old Huntingdonshire in 1931 and in 1946, our bird was found in just 5 sites in the old county, but by 1955 the county recorder wrote “ almost colonial nesting occurred at Paxton Pits when 3 pairs nested in close proximity to each other and all raised young” and in that year they bred in no less than 16 sites. Fast forward to 1995 when I counted 28 pairs at Paxton Pits.  In more recent years the count has been more like 20 pairs.

Not all pairs are successful, and Grebes still face many threats.  Pollution, disturbance by a number of recreational activities, fluctuating water levels and pike.

Have you ever enjoyed the thrilling experience of watching grebe courtship dance each spring? Known to some as the penguin or weed dance-a never to be forgotten birdwatching highlight.

As I wrote this, a pair of Grebes have no less than 4 young were being fed on Heronry South, which is a great sight – just one reason why our long-standing conservation work at the Pits is so important.

Footnote (from RSPB website)

Present wintering UK population: about 19,000 individuals
Breeding population: about 4,600 pairs