Little grebe

Bird of the Month June 2024: Little Grebe

June is a great month to look out for the little grebe, or dabchick, and their humbug-striped babies. It is also when adult birds are at their most dapper. Although often heard rather than seen, with a bit of patience, our smallest grebe can be spotted in many of our freshwater habitats, including ponds, lakes and slow-moving rivers, as long as there is plenty of vegetation. Breeding across much of the UK, they are only absent from more upland regions. Why not see if you can track down this charming little water bird this month?

Dapper Dabchick

Although fairly shy, once seen, little grebes are unmistakeable. They are small, dumpy water birds with a distinctive white fluffy rump area and a short, pointed bill. Only a winter-plumaged black-necked grebe is likely to cause any confusion. In summer, little grebes sport a beautifully rich, chestnut neck and cheek area. This gives the species the second part of its scientific name, ruficollis, meaning ‘red-necked’. Confusingly, there is also a bird with the common name red-necked grebe. This winter visitor (and very rare breeder in the UK) has a scientific name, Podiceps grisegena, referring to its grey cheek markings, however. The little grebe’s head cap, back and wings are dark brown while the undersides are a paler buff colour. A distinctive yellowish gape patch is also obvious during the breeding season.

Little grebe
This summer plumage bird is sporting its distinctive chestnut neck and pale gape patch

In winter, they lose their brighter markings and sport a mixture of more muted browns and a paler beak, although still with a darker cap and back. Chicks are dark brown or black with distinctive gold and white striped markings. These help break up their outlines amongst the reeds and vegetation of their freshwater homes. Their beaks are yellow and gradually turn dark as they age. Look out for the parents carrying youngsters on their backs, a ridiculously cute sight. Like all grebes, the species’ feet are set relatively far back on their bodies. This makes moving about on land awkward. As such, you will rarely see them out of the water. When they do come onto land to breed, their appearance is extremely ungainly. Even if the little grebes are proving particularly secretive when you go looking for them, be sure to listen out for their distinctive and very loud whinnying call.

Little grebe winter plumage
Winter plumaged birds are much paler and plainer

Pond Life

During the breeding season, little grebes live in a range of freshwater habitats. They favour lakes and ponds. However, they also use canals and slow-moving rivers for their floating water weed nests where they lay between three and six eggs. Despite being a somewhat shy species, they are surprisingly common breeders on water bodies in even fairly busy urban settings. The key determining factor is the level of vegetation. Ponds and lakes with more plant life means not only do they have somewhere to hide their nests and themselves, but also there is likely to be more of their small fish and invertebrate food about. To catch their prey, little grebes dive frequently and use their excellent swimming skills. This constant diving gives rise to the colloquial name ‘dabchick’, which means dipping, or diving, chick.

Young little grebes and parent
An adult little grebe and chicks

In winter, some UK birds carry out partial migrations to move away from frozen water. For a species primarily associated with fresh water, they can become surprisingly coastal, as well, at this time. Some sheltered bays and saltmarsh pools can be winter residences to large numbers if inland conditions are particularly cold. They are also more likely to use flowing water, which is less prone to freezing. Ringing recoveries also suggest that some birds come to the UK for the winter from Continental Europe to escape freezing conditions. Like other birds we also think of as poor fliers, such as the moorhen or water rail, it is perhaps surprising that little grebes migrate in this way, but the evidence suggests at least some do each year. The furthest distance recorded is from a bird ringed as a nestling in Latvia found shot in Lancashire when it was around a year and a half old. The oldest recorded bird, meanwhile, was six years old.

Little grebes
Little grebes can sometimes form loose groups in winter

Holding Their Own

Little grebes have populations across much of Europe, barring Scandinavia, as well as parts of North Africa and most of Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Across this range, the species is divided into six slightly different sized or coloured subspecies. In the UK, little grebes seem to be holding their own at the moment, following periods of decline in the recent past. Their population of approximately five and half thousand breeding pairs is stable as far as researchers can ascertain, but there is a significant dearth of information overall. Interestingly, they have also undergone a range expansion of just over 20% over the last forty years. This spread is not simply a case of birds expanding their range further north. They have also moved into new territories nationwide.

Little grebe juvenile
This juvenile has started to lose its stripes

The reasons behind this are not clear. Tightened legislation meant that water quality in our lakes, rivers and streams improved markedly between the 1970s and the late 1990s, which may be a factor. This did, though, also coincide with some recent little grebe declines. In recent years, a huge increase in pollution from sewage discharges, agricultural run-off and from roads, combined with less monitoring by under-resourced agencies, has eroded progress on water quality. Our water bodies are also under pressure from climate change. They risk drying out in warmer summers and, conversely, flooding during increased storm events. As such, let us hope that the delightful little dabchick continues to hold its own against the barrage of human impacts on their wetland homes.

Little grebe
A striking summer plumaged adult little grebe

Thanks for reading! If you like my writing and would like to leave me a tip, you can do so below.

Leave a Comment