Winter birding: great crested grebes on Bittell Reservoir – West Midlands

Look out for an elaborate courtship dance soon to be played out across our waterways

Photo: Corine Bliek


The end of winter is drawing near and spring is on horizon. It may seem that the cold winter months are almost devoid of wildlife, but winter and early spring can be some of the best times to see birds on and around our waterways. Some birds leave for warmer climes, but others come to visit, drawn by our relatively mild climate. The changing temperatures also draw year-round residents into new habitats and sees certain birds transform their behaviour and appearance.

The winter plumage of a great crested grebe – a fairly common waterbird – is not particularly distinctive: a long slender white neck, black and grey body and a slightly crested black cap. However, in the spring, this charismatic species develops distinctive and elaborate chestnut and facial ruffs and black plumes (known as tippets) on their face, along with a chestnut colour along their flanks, which makes them easy to identify, even from a distance.

If you’re lucky you might even catch a courtship display, where the birds fan their head plumage into a ruff, which is then shaken from side to side. The culmination of the courtship is known as the weed dance, where both birds dive to gather some greenery in their beaks, then rise to a vertical position and dance chest to chest, treading water furiously to maintain the position.

This great crested grebe is best suited to life in the water, where it dives gracefully to feed or evade attack. Because of its size, it struggles to become airborne and it is ungainly on land due to the rearwards location of its feet. It came close to extinction in the 19th Century after a display at The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 saw demand for their pelts rocket. However, conservation has seen numbers soar and it can now be found across the country, favouring large and shallow lakes.

The Bittell Reservoirs, south west of Birmingham, were built to feed the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, with the upper and lower reservoirs linked by a small stream. Several roads and public access footpaths surround the reservoirs, allowing for multiple vantage points from which to look for grebes during your walk, as well as the goldeneye ducks and goosanders that are also often found there over the winter months.