In spring, displaying great crested grebes put on a spectacular display on lakes, reservoirs and gravel pits over most of the British Isles.

Both sexes grow black and orange facial ruffs and black ear-tufts known as tippets, which they use in a special ceremony to establish their bonds in the breeding season.

Facing each other, the grebes flick their heads from side to side or slide towards each other, low in the water like alligators.

The climax of their ritual is the weed dance in which both birds, holding tufts of water weeds in their bills, paddle furiously to maintain an upright position chest to chest; an unforgettable sight and an impressive display of stamina.

The grebes’ courtship ritual was first described in detail by the ornithologist Julian Huxley in 1912.

His observations of the birds on a southern English reservoir became a landmark in field-based studies of animal behaviour or ethology.

That he was able to study the birds at all at that time was remarkable.

By the end of the 19th century, great crested grebes had been reduced almost to extinction as a breeding birds in Britain.

Feathers for 'fur'

Their thick waterproof body feathers known as ‘grebe fur’ were used for lining muffs, capes and hats; the elegant tippets were also prized as milliners’ accessories.

This slaughter reduced the birds’ numbers to around 30 pairs at their lowest point.

Their recovery was helped by conservation, legislation and especially the formation of what would become the RSPB which made their conservation a priority.

As more gravel pits and reservoirs were excavated to serve an expanding human population, the grebes recovered and are now a welcome sight in many places from town parks to rural lakes.

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Illustration of great crested grebes performing weed display by Mike Hughes and thank you to Springwatch Flickr group contributors len_firecrest and Derek Lees for the use of their images.