Thursday, 31 October 2013

Great Crested Grebes on the Gippsland Lakes

Australia has three resident grebe species, the Australasian Grebe, Hoary-headed Grebe and the Great Crested Grebe. A fourth grebe, the Little, is a rare visitor (vagrant) to Australia.
The Great Crested Grebe. This bird is found across the Old World including in Australia and New Zealand.
Australasian Grebe - much smaller than the Great Crested. Prefers fresh water.

Hoary-headed Grebe - non breeding. Large numbers can be found in shallow areas of the Gippsland Lakes.
Grebes belong to a group of waterbirds known as Podicipedidae, which means “rump-footed” due to their feet being located near the end of their bodies. This feature gives them great swimming ability, both on the surface and underwater.
Note the legs which are located well towards the end of the body - this gives them great speed for catching fish under water. Also note the powder puff tail feathers which is common on all three grebe species.
Unlike most aquatic birds grebes don’t have webbed feet. To aid swimming their feet are lobed – each toe has a stiff flap on either side. Coots also share this very unusual feature. Grebes can only shuffle when walking so it is not surprising that they are highly aquatic animals rarely seen on land. Their nests are constructed from aquatic vegetation in shallow water.
The lobed foot, unique to grebes and one or two other waterbird species, is clear in this shot. Also note the wing and white panel of feathers.
This bird was preening and scratching its head with the lobed foot - the lobed foot might be good for swimming but for walking and preening it may not be too efficient?

 Grebes are rarely seen flying and when alarmed they usually dive and can swim long distances under water to safety. However they are strong flyers and can cover vast distances when required. The long flights are undertaken at night.

Their diet consists mostly of fish and aquatic insects, which are caught underwater.
All three species are found on the Gippsland Lakes, adjoining wetlands and rivers.

The Australasian Grebe prefers fresh water habitats so it is not often found on the saline Gippsland Lakes.

The Hoary-headed Grebe is happy in saline water habitats and can be found at times in very large numbers on shallow sections of the Lakes. Rafts of up to 300 to 500 birds are not uncommon.

The Great Crested Grebe is a more solitary bird and single birds or pairs may be found on the Lakes, often well away from shorelines. From time to time small groups may shelter and rest together when very rough conditions on the Lakes force them into sheltered locations.
This was the case recently when there was a group of up to twenty Great Crested Grebes regularly resting together in McMillan Strait between Paynesville and Raymond Island. They were resting close to the Raymond Island shoreline and so could be approached closely and photographed from a vehicle. It was a good opportunity to get some photos of this species and spend some time observing them at close range.
There were 14 birds present the morning I paid them a visit. They spent most of the 40 minutes I watched them sleeping with their heads on their backs and their bills tucked under their necks. While they gave the appearance of being asleep I noticed on close observation that their eyes were often open and that they were paddling to maintain their positions against the wind and currents.
This is the sleeping or resting position, the position which all 14 birds spent most of their time in over the 40 minutes or so I watched them. Is this bird asleep?
Now and again one would wake up and undertake some preening, giving me the opportunity to get some shots of this beautiful bird. They have long necks and dagger bills with a sharp point, no doubt an effective weapon for catching fish. Their head is particularly stunning, sporting a dark crest and black tipped chestnut ruffs, which can be held flat or erected for displays of aggression and during their elaborate and extraordinary courtship rituals.
Males and females are very similar in appearance. The females are slightly smaller. Sub adults or immature birds take time to develop the full colour on the crest and ruffs.
The mature bird at top left has erected the ruffs as an aggression or threat display to the immature bird on right which came too close. It is swimming rapidly away from the mature bird and its ruff is flattened, perhaps as a show of submission?
 Here are a few more shots of the Great Crested Grebe.

Great Crested Grebes are not always present on the Gippsland Lakes so when they are here and there is an opportunity to see them up close it is not to be missed. Oh and how did I know the birds were there? A good birding friend who lives on Raymond Island let me know and even provided a cup of tea (but no biscuits!) – thanks RM.
I need to find a breeding pair and get some courtship photos now?????


  1. An interesting post, and some very nice images. I'd love to see the courtship too - W.A. seems to be a good place.

  2. G'day John,
    Another wonderful entry. Not a bird we catch too often down this end of the Lakes. Nice to have contacts isn't it?