GREAT CRESTED GREBE (Podiceps cristatus)

Grèbe huppé

 

 

In my opinion this bird is one of the most elegant that we have in Europe - in breeding plumage with its long neck and fine beak with the two "horns" that give its name it is definitely a good looker. This is a streamlined bird, designed for hunting fish whilst swimming underwater rather than being on land or in the air. In Switzerland it is found in all the large natural lakes which are mostly below 800m, it does not occur on the high mountain dams where fluctuating water levels make the shoreline unsuitable for breeding and which mostly freeze over in winter.

That said, for such an elegant bird it does posses a most inelegant repertoire of sounds ranging from guttural grunts, to loud squawks and honks like a goose, to rolling growling noises. All are strong sounds and carry over a long distance. Most are given when interactions between two adults are underway (in fact I do not think I have ever seen a bird on its own make any noise), and these interactions may be either territorial aggression or when interacting with a mate so their meaning seems to be context specific, which makes strict assignment of meaning rather difficult. Plus the male and female are identical in plumage and both seem to make the same noises.

One of the most widely heard sounds is a goose-like honking noise, here are two birds both using this in December on Lake Geneva, they did not seem to be using it aggressively and my impression was that pair bonding was underway:

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Like most of the sounds of this bird it utilises a range of frequencies provided by the harmonics:

 

A similar call that I have also heard in what looked like a mate-attracting context is a rather sharp call which reminds me very much of the "go-back, go-back" call of Red Grouse, this call was made by a pair out in open water:

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There is also a growling, churring noise that sounds most peculiar. This I have seen used in a clearly aggressive context (two families with young posturing at each other at close quarters, adults swimming at each other with necks outstretched) but also out in open water between two birds that seemed as though they were bonding. This clip has two examples of this, the first is used in the aggressive mode and the second was more distant in a pair-bonding context:

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In that same aggressive encounter between two families one bird also seemed to modify the call to a much lower volume level but preceded by one of the honk calls heard earlier:

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In these recordings you can also hear the incessant calling of the young birds, whether they were begging for food, or whether it was anxiety at watching their parents fight for space with another family was not clear to me (or maybe it was just their way of contributing to the squabble !):

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The young have a dramatic stripey colouration quite unlike their parents and they are reared on a semi-floating nest near the edge of the water but safe from land-born predators like foxes.

My ambition is to be able to record the courtship of these beautiful birds, in this they face off each other (as in the top photo) one of them (and we assume it is the male) often offers a piece of water weed as an "attractive gift" then the two paddle their feet very rapidly and rise up breast to breast in what is known as a "penguin walk". This is not as well developed in this species as in some other grebes but is truly wonderful thing to watch - although I have seen it I have not yet been lucky enough to record it.......one day maybe.....

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