On 28th January a guest at Elveden Forest, Ken Russell, spotted a Great Crested Grebe taking a trip on the lake with a very special passenger. After consulting our expert Rangers at the Village, we are delighted to introduce what we believe to be the first Center Parcs wildlife baby of 2015!
The young chick appears to be just a few days old in the magnificent photos Ken took. Great Crested Grebes have an incubation period (the time between an egg being laid and it hatching) of between 27 and 29 days. After doing the maths, our Rangers worked out that this little chick’s egg was probably laid on New Year’s Day, making it our first baby of the year.
It may look like the baby is enjoying a leisurely tour of the lake, but it is likely that this is its very first swimming lesson. Unusually for baby wildfowl, Great Crested Grebe chicks are capable of swimming and diving from almost the moment they are hatched. So rather than live in the nest for several days, they go straight out onto the water on their parent’s back.
The adult teaches the chicks the way of the water by swimming out with them on their back and diving beneath the surface. The baby grebe naturally floats, and when the parent bird re-emerges a few feet away, the chick swims over to them. It’s a bit like a parent letting go of a toddler’s hands to encourage them to walk towards them. After a few goes like this, the babies figure out how to swim and are ready to look after themselves.
Most grebe clutches (number of eggs produced at one time) consist of only one or two eggs, which a single grebe can easily carry on its back. But if there are more than two hatchlings, the parents will each pick their favourites to look after!
Our little grebe chick should grow up to be an excellent swimmer and diver. It will dive to catch fish for most of its diet, but will also eat crustaceans, insects and small frogs. Grebes are such good swimmers that they nest right on the edges of lakes, and if threatened they will dive to safety rather than fly away. Their legs are set back very far on their body, which makes them clumsy on land and causes them to occasionally fall over often when trying to walk.
As you can see in the photos, grebe chicks are fluffy with distinctive black and white stripes on their head. They lose these markings when they grow into adults, but they gain an impressive plumage around their face and on top of their head. This is used to attract a mate – Great Crested Grebes have an elaborate courtship display in which they dive before rising out of the water and shaking their heads to plump up their plumage and spray water around them.
Their plumage is so beautiful that the species was nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century for its feathers, which were used to decorate hats and, peculiarly, ladies’ underwear. The RSPB was set up to counteract the trade of plumage for fashion and protect species like the Great Crested Grebe. Thankfully, today they are once again a common site in the UK.