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 Little Grebe - Fact File

Little Grebe

Tachybaptus ruficollis
Resident. Commonest grebe, avoiding only barren upland areas.
Breeds on inland waters, even small ponds and ditches. In winter, also found in coastal waters.

Small and short-necked, with 'powder puff' rear end. Dives frequently. In breeding plumage, yellow gape and chestnut face and neck. Distinctive trilling call.

25 cm (10")

Little Grebe

Watching from the Breydon Bridge observation hide at high tide, I suddenly became aware of hundreds of dunlin taking wing and climbing high above the saltings.

The cause of the disturbance: a sparrowhawk sweeping low across the tideway and heading straight for a little grebe swimming in the main channel. But at the last moment the grebe dived head-first in a jet of spray, leaving a frustrated bird of prey.

Smallest of the grebes, the little grebe, or dabchick, is considerably rounder and more dumpy than its congeners. But it is the absence of tail and the habit of fluffing-up feathers at the rear end which provide such a blunt stern.

Little grebes breed on ponds, small lakes and meres, flooded gravel pits and beet factory settling ponds. Frost drives them to the coast, but the birds also visit estuaries, tidal gutters and the lower reaches of Broadland rivers for food, independently of weather. Examples also regularly winter on the Wensum in Norwich.

Through the years, local ornithologists have recorded nocturnal wandering dabchicks as casualties at light-vessels off our coast, at Happisburgh lighthouse and on a gas production platform 30 miles off Yarmouth.

Little grebes are persistent divers, either slipping below without surface disturbance or with a vigorous jump, creating a shower with lobed feet. Dives may last half a minute or the birds may reappear immediately. If alarmed, a dabchick will submerge until only its head remains above water.

The flooded former gravel workings forming part of the RSPB's Snettisham Reserve attract more little grebes in autumn and winter than any other locality in Norfolk. On occasions the total has exceeded a hundred birds.

Among the more important dabchick localities in summer are Holme Broadwater, Holkham Park lake, Wells boating lake and Hickling Broad. In Suffolk the Deben estuary has for some time remained pre-eminent and some winters almost a hundred assemble there. Unlike other grebes, dabchicks are rarely observed at sea.

Little grebes begin returning to breeding stations during March. The floating nest is a large collection of weeds, mostly brought from underwater. Several platforms are built before one is completed as a nest.

It was in Breckland that I first became familiar with nesting dabchicks. During those years each mere - no matter how small - echoed to their distinctive and far-carrying courting trills.

My notebook reminds me of the scene: a dabchick swimming across the mere with a brood of tiny young all aboard and peeping from under the parent's wings. Then, surprisingly, the parent dived, but the nestlings rose like corks, anxiously looking for the reappearance of their bearer when they scrambled aboard over the parent's tail.

At times there is fierce spring-time rivalry, the male little grebes water-kicking, splash-diving and skidding across the water with necks extended, followed by underwater attacks. In full combat, rivals rise breast to breast in vertical posture, attacking with feet and stabbing with bills. Courtship may continue on moonlit nights.

Little grebes may be expected in the vicinity of Breydon Water all year; up to 20 breeding pairs occupy reedy dykes at Berney and alongside the south wall. But it is at Holkham National Nature Reserve that the most spectacular increase has taken place. Following flooding in 1977 almost 40 pairs now nest on the sanctuary.

Little grebe breeding range extends right across central and southern Europe as far as southern Sweden and the Baltic States. Birds on the northern fringe, where there is regular winter freezing of rivers and lakes, need to migrate southward each autumn.

Ringing recoveries throw limited light on the origins of migrants since the majority have been ringed and recovered in autumn and winter when probably already well away from breeding localities. In Broadland, a remarkably early breeding pair of great crested grebes had a full clutch of eggs by December 4. Despite the vicinity of the nest becoming iced over, one young has survived and was seen riding its parent's back on the river Bure on New Year's Day!

Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.