Great Crested Grebe

Podiceps cristatus

Great Crested Grebe. Photo: John Spiers

Great Crested Grebes are readily identified from their spectacular crest and facial ruff. They are well known for their elaborate breeding displays. The most common display is a simple ‘head-shaking’ but there is also a ‘discovery ceremony’. Here one bird makes a two-note call, while the other spreads its wings and facial ruff. The first bird then approaches the other in a shallow underwater ‘ripple dive’ at the end of which it rises up in a ‘ghostly penguin’ display. Both birds shake their heads and turn away. This is followed by a ‘weed trick’ and ‘weed dance’ with the birds diving, bringing up weeds, approaching one another and rising upright breast to breast, and stretching out their necks. They sway, paddle with their feet, and sink down again. (Source: Readers Digest Complete book of Australian Birds).

Great Crested Grebes feed on fish, some quite large, and a wide variety of invertebrates especially crustaceans, insects, snails and amphibians. It feeds on the surface, with only the head submerged, but more commonly it dives for its prey, catching them by rapid pursuit and consuming them underwater. It may forage alone, or in small groups, and sometimes in large flocks.

Breeding occurs in the summer (November to March) when water levels are high. The male and female perform elaborate breeding displays. Both sexes build the nest which consists of a platform of aquatic plants. They vigorously defend their nest site. This may be floating, anchored to vegetation or built up from the lake bottom. The normal clutch size is of 3-5 eggs. Sexual maturity is normally reached at 2 years of age, but some mate and establish a territory in their first year.

There is only one subspecies in Australia: P. c. australis Gould, 1844.


Their distinctive facial ornaments make Great Crested Grebes easy to recognise. In breeding plumage, they have a black cap with an erectile crest and an extensive ruff of black-edged, tawny-rufous feathers (also known as ‘tippets’) bordering a white face. A dark line runs from the eyes to the gape. The nape, back, wing-coverts, rump and tail are a dark brown-grey. The chin, throat, breast and underparts are white to pale cream. The secondaries are white and there are white panels on the lesser wing coverts and outer scapulars. The iris is brownish red to dark red. The bill is blackish-grey to pinkish grey, and the legs dark grey. In non-breeding plumage there are no crests or tippets, but seldom seen in complete non-breeding plumage in Australia. Males and females are alike except that the male has a slightly larger bill and face ornaments. The juvenile is like non-breeding adults but has black and white stripes on the head and neck. The downy chicks have head and neck whitish with black longitudinal stripes, upperparts buffy grey with dark brownish-grey stripes, paler below.

Where to find it

Great Crested Grebes are rare in South Australia, even in suitable habitats. They are migratory and dispersive, and out of the breeding season they move to sheltered coastal waters, estuaries, exposed lakes and reservoirs, sometimes gathering in large flocks.

For breeding they like bodies of fresh or brackish water, fringed by vegetation, with sizeable sheets of open water for foraging.

They are more likely to be found in the Adelaide Plains, Mount Lofty Ranges, Lakes Albert and Alexandrina, the Coorong and the South-East.