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.

These large, elegant birds are the largest among the grebes. For most of the year, the great crested grebe has a bright-white face and neck, with a dark line across the eye. Juvenile great crested grebes have distinctive black-and-white stripes on their heads. Photo: Neel Sureja  Cover photo: Jayesh Patel

These large, elegant birds are the largest among the grebes. For most of the year, the great crested grebe has a bright-white face and neck, with a dark line across the eye. Juvenile great crested grebes have distinctive black-and-white stripes on their heads. Photo: Neel Sureja
Cover photo: Jayesh Patel

During the breeding season, both males and females grow tippets, the black and tawny orange facial ruffs and ear tufts, which they use in displays to establish pair bonds. Courtship displays include grooming and swimming dances with heads shaking and bobbing. This is accompanied by calls to each other, showing off their tippets and their black crests. Dr Rahmani aptly likens them to torpedoes, perfectly built for air and water, but practically immobile on land. With small legs located far behind, grebes are unable to walk on terra firma. Grebes as a family derive their Latin name “Podiceps”’ from “podicis”, meaning buttocks, and “pes”, meaning foot, referring to the placement of the legs. The position of the feet in these ancient diving birds also earned it the rather colourful early English name “arsefoot”. Photos: Neel Sureja

During the breeding season, both males and females grow tippets, the black and tawny orange facial ruffs and ear tufts, which they use in displays to establish pair bonds. Courtship displays include grooming and swimming dances with heads shaking and bobbing. This is accompanied by calls to each other, showing off their tippets and their black crests. Dr Rahmani aptly likens them to torpedoes, perfectly built for air and water, but practically immobile on land. With small legs located far behind, grebes are unable to walk on terra firma. Grebes as a family derive their Latin name “Podiceps”’ from “podicis”, meaning buttocks, and “pes”, meaning foot, referring to the placement of the legs. The position of the feet in these ancient diving birds also earned it the rather colourful early English name “arsefoot”. Photos: Neel Sureja

Breeding pairs of the great crested grebe tend to be territorial. They first establish their territory on a waterbody by calling to each other across the water. The mating ritual of the great crested grebes begins with the female honking and purring to attract a mate or to renew an existing pair bond. Once paired, their elaborate mating rituals involve a series of calls, after which they dive into the water like a pair of adept synchronised swimmers. They resurface carrying tufts of weed in their beaks and patter on the surface. Once the ritual starts, it appears almost like the pair are mirroring each other. Photos: Neel Sureja

The highlight of the courtship ritual, pattering or “walking” on water (above) can happen repeatedly. The intensity of the breeding display seems higher when there are more pairs in a water body.

Great crested grebes can be found in a variety of aquatic habitats, including lakes, slow-flowing rivers, swamps, and lagoons. Breeding habitats consist of shallow open bodies of fresh or brackish water, with some vegetation to provide suitable locations for nests. Their nests are usually fashioned from aquatic vegetation and therefore need to be frequently replenished when the vegetation rots and becomes soggy. Sometimes there might be floating nests for copulation and a fresh nest built for the eggs. In this floating nest, a shallow depression is made where 3-5 eggs are laid. Parents often change the vegetation to prevent the eggs from getting damp. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Great crested grebes can be found in a variety of aquatic habitats, including lakes, slow-flowing rivers, swamps, and lagoons. Breeding habitats consist of shallow open bodies of fresh or brackish water, with some vegetation to provide suitable locations for nests. Their nests are usually fashioned from aquatic vegetation and therefore need to be frequently replenished when the vegetation rots and becomes soggy. Sometimes there might be floating nests for copulation and a fresh nest built for the eggs. In this floating nest, a shallow depression is made where 3-5 eggs are laid. Parents often change the vegetation to prevent the eggs from getting damp. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Sureja observes that when the monsoon is good, Vibhapar in Jamnagar is visited by around 10 pairs of breeding greater crested grebes. In lean seasons, it dwindles to just one or two pairs. He says, “There is equal sharing of parental duties and both parents take part in incubation and chick-rearing. During the incubation period, they are also active at night, watching over the eggs.” Usually, after hatching, the nests are deserted and the hatchlings spend most of their time in the water. Like others in the grebe family, young chicks ride on their parents’ backs. Both parents take turns feeding and caring for the chicks. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Sureja observes that when the monsoon is good, Vibhapar in Jamnagar is visited by around 10 pairs of breeding greater crested grebes. In lean seasons, it dwindles to just one or two pairs. He says, “There is equal sharing of parental duties and both parents take part in incubation and chick-rearing. During the incubation period, they are also active at night, watching over the eggs.” Usually, after hatching, the nests are deserted and the hatchlings spend most of their time in the water. Like others in the grebe family, young chicks ride on their parents’ backs. Both parents take turns feeding and caring for the chicks. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

In addition to striking facial stripes, the young sometimes have rufous patches or a bare spot on the crown. Fossil records demonstrate that these ancient, highly specialised diving birds have managed to survive through several epochs. In Oregon in the US, a fossil grebe (Podiceps oligoceanus) dating back to the late Oligocene epoch (about 25 million years ago) was uncovered and bears many similarities to the grebes of today. As generations of chicks grow up and waltz with each other, we can celebrate the resilience of the great crested grebe. Photo: Neel Sureja

In addition to striking facial stripes, the young sometimes have rufous patches or a bare spot on the crown. Fossil records demonstrate that these ancient, highly specialised diving birds have managed to survive through several epochs. In Oregon in the US, a fossil grebe (Podiceps oligoceanus) dating back to the late Oligocene epoch (about 25 million years ago) was uncovered and bears many similarities to the grebes of today. As generations of chicks grow up and waltz with each other, we can celebrate the resilience of the great crested grebe. Photo: Neel Sureja

Divya Candade
Divya Candade

is a social anthropologist who works in the area of communication for sustainable development. She loves nature and slow travel, and is most content in the wilderness.


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