For more than 15 years, photographer David Pattyn has been enraptured by the complex family life of the great crested grebe. From the elaborate courtship rituals of potential partners in January and February to the emergence of fluffy, striped chicks in spring, all is captured from David’s inconspicuous floating hides. “Once you go in the water and you are in this small tent, it’s like you are completely sealed off from the rest of the world and it’s just you and the birds.”
The ‘weed ceremony’ or ‘reed dance’ is the seldom-seen pinnacle of the highly choreographed courtship displays and a sure sign that mating will commence soon afterwards. A couple will charge towards one another, heads low to the water’s surface, before rising, proffering their nesting material and frantically treading water.
A suitor runs on the water in a display of physical strength and health to impress a female. Courting takes place over several weeks and involves preening, calling, feather fluffing, mirrored head-shaking and plenty of showing off from both sexes.
David has noticed that courtship behaviour proliferates in densely populated areas where there are more rivals. Here, a grebe emerges from the water having swum underneath its partner, who spreads its wings. “They will then turn to face one another and mimic each other’s movements,” David says. “It’s very spectacular and I think it is not just to make their commitment to each other but also to impress the other couples in the area.”
Great crested grebes are very agile in the water, able to pursue rivals at speed, powered by webbed feet placed towards the back of their bodies. They will also dive to feed and escape predators. The downside to their swimming prowess is that they are clumsy and vulnerable on land and also struggle to take flight, requiring a long run-up. However, once airborne, the species is capable of great migratory journeys across Europe.
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