Great crested grebes
Love is in the air in February, so head to your local lake to witness the great crested grebe’s incredible mating dance
Wildlife TV programmes often wow us with the beautifully choreographed courtship dances of birds of paradise or bowerbirds from remote places such as New Guinea. But if your local park has a decent sized lake, you might find yourself with a front row seat at one of nature’s great water ballets. It’s at this time of the year that great crested grebes perform their courtship displays.
Grebes have a slight resemblance to ducks but are more graceful on water (they are hopeless on land). They are also superb divers and can outpace their fish prey underwater. The great crested is the most handsome of our native grebe species, with a long sharp bill, fiery orange head plumage and a spiky crest. This headgear is an essential part of the mating dance.
When a male and female great crested grebes meet, both birds raise their crests, flare their fiery throat feathers and mantle their wings. Alternately, the birds bob and shake their heads, remaining beak to beak for long periods. One bird may then dash away – the retreat display – only to suddenly turn and face its pursuing partner. The birds then make synchronised dives and emerge holding weed in their bills. They then rear up, chest to chest, feet paddling madly and offer each other a weedy present. Though the water is frothing below them during this ‘weed dance’, the two birds remain remarkably poised.
If the dance is successful, the two birds form a lasting bond. The female will allow the male to mate with her and the pair will begin building a raft from vegetation on which to nest.
Great crested grebes are now a relatively common sight on large ponds and lakes but they almost went extinct in the UK in the
19th century, as their orange tufts were much sought-after as decorations for fashionable hats. Fortunately, this pointless slaughter was stopped and the birds recovered.
This cheerful yellow woodland and hedgebank flower is the prima rosa because it was deemed the first flower of the year (though the snowdrop would probably have a say in the matter). It was once picked in huge numbers and sent on trains from the countryside to London, where it would be sold in small bunches at Easter. This picking was seen by some as the reason for the flower’s decline across the country. However, recent studies show that agricultural herbicides and the incessant tidying of roadside verges and hedgerows is the more likely cause.
Spotting this smart little bird on a winter woodland walk is always worth a little internal celebration. Listen for its metallic calls echoing through the trees.
Operating like a small grey-blue woodpecker, it scurries up tree trunks and along branches in search of insects, which it winkles from crevices with it stout, sharp bill. As its name suggests, it is also partial to nuts, which it holds in its claws and chips open with careful chiselling.
The ‘hatch’ part of the bird’s name comes from the old French word hach, meaning axe or hatchet.
If the weather gets really cold, you might be blessed with a visit from parties of siskins. These small, green-yellow finches with black-streaked bodies love conifer or birch woods but will happily raid seed-feeders in nearby gardens when times are hard.
Arriving in small flocks from central Europe, these exotic peach-tinged birds with black eyeliner and debonair crests are a sign that it’s even colder on the continent than it is here. Waxwings love hedgerow berries.
For those of us without chickens but with ponds, early spring provides that “have they laid yet?” excitement. As soon as it gets a little warmer, common frogs emerge from the mud at the bottom of ponds or from dank crevices where they’ve been escaping the winter cold, and hope to breed as soon as possible in the nearest pond. Once the smaller male finds a receptive female, he clambers onto her back and grips her tightly in the amplex position (above) so that he cannot be dislodged easily by rival males. Here he can fertilise the eggs when the female finally lays them. Frogs spawn earliest in south-west England – perhaps in January in the tip of Cornwall – while in Scotland they might still be laying eggs in April.
Wherever you are, there’s a joy of nipping out to the garden before breakfast and seeing gelatinous balls of frogspawn floating in your pond. Each female can lay up to 3,000 eggs so in a good year you might be inundated with tiny tadpoles. But dozens of different predators – from dragonfly larvae and goldfish to adventurous blackbirds – enjoy feasting on tadpoles and very few survive to make the transformation to the froglet stage in early summer. Fewer still make the long journey to adulthood three years later.