Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Hottest Courtship Ritual in Essex!

Mid to late February is the time to look out for the most elegant of courtship displays in Essex. At Dagenham Chase I have been lucky enough to watch a pair of Great Crested Grebes begin their annual mating ritual. The pair look resplendent especially when the sun breaks through their black and chestnut head plumes appear to shine.

At first you can hear them as you approach their lake; one bird will send out a braying advertising call and then wait for an answer. From across the lake a reply, the pair swim towards each other, then once they are in almost touching distance of each other one rears up out of the water almost to its belly, yet with its neck arched down, holding the posture known as the ghostly penguin display – for a few moments. It has proposed itself to its mate.
Now there is tension because the reaction it gets from the other grebe is vital. If the other grebe performs a display by half-opening its wings, ruffling its feathers and extending the frills on its cheeks he has impressed her and bingo she did exactly that! We now have a pair who are ready to perform!
And now comes the amazing courtship ritual – a water ballet. First, the grebes face each other, shaking their heads from side to side. With utter elegance, they occasionally turn around to flick their back feathers with their bills. This is called bob-preening, yet has the grace of the best curtsey. The head-shaking ceremony that follows is the birds’ tango – all intimate and sultry – and leads to the climax of the show!
Unfortunately I was peering through the reeds to see the display begin!

The grebes dive deep, resurfacing with vegetation in their bills. They rush towards each other and meet breast-to-breast, rearing high up out of the water as they do so, paddling wildly with their feet to keep their balance. They remain thus ‘embraced’ for some time, showing off their waterweed with sideways shakes of the head.
And the weed dance took place completely out of view!

Eventually, the birds settle back down onto the water and enter into one last bout of head-shaking – the finale to one of the most elaborate chain-reaction displays of any bird!
Annoyingly on Sunday the pair performed the full courtship display including the weed dance, but were hidden from my camera behind a small patch of reeds, ah well maybe next time! 

large piece of nest material!