It’s a late February morning at Virginia Water in Windsor Great Park, Berkshire. Floating on the wide, open lake are several great crested grebes, showing off their black and chestnut head plumes and apparently doing little more than treading water.
But the tranquility deceives. February is the start of the breeding season. It’s the time of year when desire boils over into action, a season that can be full of hot-tempered misunderstandings. There have probably been conflicts between these outwardly blank-faced birds, and more are likely to follow. And it’s these simple instincts that escalate into one of the most remarkable events in Britain’s birding calendar.
The proceedings begin with one bird sending out its braying advertising call and looking around for an answer. It receives a reply in kind from not far across the lake. Tension fills the air – the first grebe is nervous. It may have already had a serious rebuff this morning and lost a few feathers for its trouble.
The two grebes start floating inexorably towards each other, but giving the impression of doing nothing special at all, like spy-movie protagonists heading for a clandestine meeting. Then, one bird will break cover and dive. Hardly new ground for a grebe, you might think, but this is a ripple dive – not a deep, fish-chasing dive, but a way of approaching almost unseen, its advance given away only by the merest ruffle on the glassy water.
When the grebe resurfaces, it’s within the personal space of the other bird and its intent is now clear. The grebe rears up out of the water almost to its belly, yet with its neck arched down, holding this posture – known as the ghostly penguin display – for a few moments. It has declared itself.
The reaction of the other grebe is crucial. If it performs the cat display by half-opening its wings and ruffling its feathers, extending the frills on its cheeks, much of the tension will be defused. Now, at last, the male and female have established a partnership. They’re ready to dance.
And now comes the act you’ve been waiting for – the famous water ballet. First, the grebes face each other, shaking their heads from side to side (a human ‘no’ is a grebe’s definitive ‘yes’). 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: the weed or penguin dance.
The grebes dive deep, resurfacing with greenery 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.
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 in the world.
And the well-heeled of Virginia Water pass by. Some may have tickets for Covent Garden. This ballet, though, is free of charge.
WHEN TO SEE February to June
TIME Early morning/late evening
CONDITIONS A still, sunny day
TOP SPOT Tring Reservoirs, Herts www.hertsbirdclub.org.uk
Windsor Great Park, Berks www.royal-windsor.com
Lake Vyrnwy, Powys www.rspb.org.uk