Dancing Grebes

As the sun eventually began to rise over the trees at the edge of a local Angus loch I sat quietly, patiently, with camera in hand ready to capture the moment I had got up at 5am for. A lone Great Crested Grebe who was now perfectly lit in the golden colour of dawn floated by continually calling out across the loch waiting for a response.

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One never came. Still it tried. Even approaching a lone Coot with a mouth full of weed in desperation at one point, only to be rebuffed. Still it drifted up and down the loch in front of me calling out for a partner before eventually heading off into the sunrise among the mist.

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Spring is the time to watch and capture perhaps one of the most beautiful displays of bonding in the animal kingdom. The courtship of the Great Crested Grebe. Although this has been photographed and recorded extensively I had set out to capture it for myself and hopefully add some originality.  This hadn’t been the greatest of starts.

As I was leaving I got chatting to another wildlife enthusiast with a bigger camera than mine, not that size matters. He chuckled as he informed me that this loch is renowned among local wildlife watchers and photographers to only have a single lonely Grebe but another loch less than 20 minutes away is home to numerous pairs each year and would offer my best chance.

I headed straight there and as soon as I reached the first viewpoint I saw two pairs courting but in terribly harsh light and at a distance.

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As with many animals Great Crested Grebe’s were slaughtered for their feathers in the early 20th century. Used for lining hats, gloves and other items of clothing their numbers plummeted and they were reduced to only 30 pairs in the whole of the UK at their lowest point. Thankfully due to the formation of a body we now know as the RSPB and protective legislation being introduced at a key point there is now an estimated 5,300 pairs that will elaborately dance across lakes and lochs across the UK every spring before breeding.

I sat for a further 30 minutes while the light only got worse but the number of pairs displaying was still cause for excitement. I counted six! Six pairs were all jockeying for space in a small section of the loch where I could easily get close to them without causing disturbance. Future visits looked promising.

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Returning to the site over the last couple of weeks however has been mostly frustrating. Although I had worked out a great spot to photograph from the weather was mostly cloudy resulting in smooth consistent light at dawn rather than the golden light of the first morning. The location was also no good at sunset either. The surrounding trees plunge the area the Grebes inhabit into dullness long before the light turns golden.

The Grebes however have been a delight to watch throughout. They would mostly just cruise by typically eating, preening or resting on the water making for more standard shots I’ve often seen.

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Every so often the males will begin to call out to the females repeatedly. When they finally receive a response they begin to cruise towards each other. One of them will then dive underwater only to resurface in the other’s personal space. This invasion can result in a squabble and lead to feathers being displaced from a fight early in their initial attempts at courtship at the start of March but now in early April the pair instead begin an elaborate dance, flicking their heads up and down and from side to side while facing one another.

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The final stage of any Great Crested Grebe courtship is a flamboyant weed dance where the pair almost stand on water with mouths full, flicking their heads from side to side, sometimes with stomachs bulging out almost touching. It truly is incredible.

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Typically, on the only two occasions I witnessed this I was totally unprepared while walking towards the edge of the loch or just as I was setting up my stuff.  I managed to grab these poorly focused and exposed shots. Serendipity is the nature of wildlife photography I’m beginning to discover.

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One early morning however was fantastic. The sky was clear, the light golden. I sat on a small ex-fishing stool with tripod set up and camera ready to roll on aperture priority to account for the ever changing light.  The pairs around me were repeatedly displaying at a distance and I managed to capture some footage which I’m happy with.

The pair right in front of me however were not. They seemed well acquainted, busy preening and fishing rather than displaying.

After an hour the light was at it peak. I had just finished taking some more video and switched back to camera mode at the right time when they decided to display, albeit very briefly, right in front of me and I managed to capture a few nice shots.

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Some of which I might consider entering into some sort of competition if I become brave enough.

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All of this swaying, flicking and standing on water is for this.

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This is the pair who have sat right in front of me. They have been building a nest and mating since that morning and seem to the first pair to do so as they are the only pair I have seen who constantly swim back and forth to the same location among the reeds.

The other pairs are all more vocal and far more active in strengthening their bond through dance. This couple however seem pretty comfortable with each other and are getting on with becoming parents.  This should hopefully mean i’ll be able to watch a little humbug of a bairn ride it’s parents backs and fish for the first time in the coming summer which might make for another blog post.

Thanks for reading.

Elliot & Kirsten.

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