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Great Crested Grebe

The largest of our grebes seen on lakes and on open tidal waters

Photograph by: 
Peter Orchard

When spring arrives everything changes and much of it we notice but some things go unnoticed perhaps. We hear the birds starting to sing again, we see insects on the wing, we see the green shoots on the tress and hedgerows, and we see the colour of the early flowers. But, do we notice that birds are getting their breeding plumage? In a lot of species the change is negligible of course, one does not notice the more vibrant colours in the greenfinch and the chaffinch but you can hardly miss the wonderful head dress that the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) develops. The great crested grebe is a pretty special bird at any time in my book but this splendid plumage linked with their delightful 'water dance' and breeding display make them a species to be looked out for.

The great crested grebe, like others in the group, are equally at home on fresh water and on the sea. They breed on freshwater lakes and occasionally on slow moving rivers and then, when the family is old enough in late summer, they relocate to sheltered harbours and bays. A small number breed on lakes and rivers in Dorset but in winter the numbers are swollen by birds from further north both in Britain and northern Europe. I am not sure we actually know where our few breeding pairs and their families go; maybe it's further south into mainland southern Europe and that all of our winter sightings are of birds from the north? In winter it is not unusual to see groups of six or more together although they are often spread out rather than being in a cluster.

The weekly sightings from Twitter reports makes for interesting viewing. From week 14 in early April there are just one or two reports each week through until week 28 in mid July. There then seems to be a break with just odd reports until week 44 at the end of October and then the number of reports start to rise and there are reports every week in November and right through until the end of March. This shows the presence of a small breeding community from April until July and then, when the young are old enough, they seem to depart and it is in November we see the arrival of the migrant birds from the north.

There are reports of great crested grebe from thirty one Dorset locations; a mixture of harbours, offshore and lake sites. Poole Harbour has a good number during the winter as too does Portland Harbour but Christchurch harbour seemingly less so. During the summer they can be seen at Radipole Lake, Hatch Pond and Longham Lakes. They are also seen along the Fleet and off shore in Studland Bay and Weymouth Bay in winter.

To add great crested grebe to your Dorset list try a trip to Radipole in summer, there are always a few pairs there and are easily seen.


Great Crested Grebe: the water dancer

Common Name Great Crested Grebe
Scientific Name Podiceps cristatus
Species Group Birds Grebes and divers
Status Occasional
Interest Level
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
Look for

The long neck and low body profile

Identification Notes
  • Summer and winter plumage is very different and in spring and summer the vibrant colurs make it easy to identify as it breeds on lakes and large ponds
  • In winter they lose these colours and become pale grey as they move to open water to feed and this makes them harder to identify
  • In winter the are often seen in groups of up to a dozen off shore and can be identified by their long necks, pointed bill and low body profile in the water
Primary Habitat
Preferred Environment
Look for
Additional Identification Notes
Similar Species

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Notebook Distribution Map Sites List Some Charts Some Photographs Recent Records Guidance Notes

To see related species click here: 

Birds Grebes and divers