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Monthly column: Take a Walk on the Wild Side




The great crested grebes do their dance and exchange water weed. Photo: Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION.
The great crested grebes do their dance and exchange water weed. Photo: Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION.

This month Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Rachel Shaw writes about the courtship rituals on our waters:

On lakes and reservoirs across the country an extraordinary ritual dance is taking place that would be suitable for any primetime TV nature show.

The Greatest Love of All: The courtship ritual between the great crested grebes. Photo: Andrew Parkinson/2020 VISION.
The Greatest Love of All: The courtship ritual between the great crested grebes. Photo: Andrew Parkinson/2020 VISION.

As mists rise from the water’s surface on early spring mornings, great crested grebe pairs join together to dance.

With orange and black head plumes spread wide, an elegant ritual of head-shaking, bill-dipping and preening culminates in the famous ‘penguin dance’, when the pair rush together, paddling their feet frantically to raise upright from the water, standing chest to chest, flicking a beak-full of water weed at each other before one final shake of the head and the weed is dropped, and the deal is clinched.

The 19th century saw a fashion for bird plumes, and the great crested grebe was almost driven to extinction in Britain, the head plumes used on hats and densely-feathered ‘grebe fur’ made into the lining of fashionable capes and muffs. By the 1860s there were maybe as few as 30 pairs left.

Their plight was one of the triggers for the birth of the modern conservation movement: attitudes and laws were changed, and there are now around 4,600 pairs, and they can be seen dancing their dance on many park lakes, reservoirs, gravel pits and canals.

Thrill of the chase: Courting coots, pictured by David Tipling/2020VISION.
Thrill of the chase: Courting coots, pictured by David Tipling/2020VISION.

If you are lucky enough to see that final penguin dance, return in five weeks and you see their humbug babies, riding on their parents’ backs.

Your local park lake may not be home to great crested grebes, but look out for coot. Their courtship display involves pairs bowing in front of each other and nibbling the top of each other’s head, with wings raised and tail fluffed up.

Coots are also very territorial, frequently chasing other birds off from their patch.

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