A splash of glistening water envelops the two birds that are locked in a captivating dance, holding water weeds in their bills. The waltzing pair paddles furiously, maintaining an upright position that is almost penguin-like. The two lovers stand chest to chest and turn their heads from side to side in sync, as if to a tune only they can hear. This pattering weed dance, where the pair walks on water, is the pinnacle of the courtship of the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus). Lasting only a few seconds, this is an event that is rarely seen, let alone photographed in India.
A winter migrant to India, great crested grebes move from temperate waterbodies across Europe to warmer waterbodies in Asia at the start of the cold season. Over the years, records of great crested grebes breeding across India have spread geographically, from initial reports restricted to Gujarat and Ladakh to more recent sightings in Assam, the Sundarbans, Udaipur, and even further down south in Andhra Pradesh. Small populations of great crested grebes have also been found living in India for most of the year in the Menaria wetlands near Udaipur. Dr Asad Rahmani, ornithologist and former Director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), shares details of a memorable visit to these wetlands where he watched a nesting pair of birds fix their nest platform. He describes how they jumped to the nest from the water, landing on their breasts, and then comically waddling to the nest cup.
“They seem to be good indicators of water quality; great crested grebes are not found in areas where overfishing occurs, or in waterbodies that are polluted or covered with water hyacinth,” Rahmani notes. They prefer clear waterbodies that are deep enough for them to dive into in search of aquatic insects, fish, tadpoles, and shrimps.