With the lengthening and warmer days of spring, many people’s attention turns to the outdoors, with walks to local riversides and lake shores, bread in hand, to feed the ducks. It’s the season to look out for courting adult birds and fluffy newly hatched chicks. It’s also the time when the drab plumage of winter has fully receded to reveal the brighter breeding colours of spring.
Among the noisy flocks of ducks and geese, it’s the larger, more graceful water birds, notably the mute swan and grey heron, that tend to make the greatest visual impression. Both are favourites with photographers, too, but there is an even greater, if rarer, prize for the camera lens than these two magnificent water birds: the great crested grebe.
By far the largest of the grebe family, adult birds breed from April to September in Europe, when their distinct breeding plumage of a russet-red neck ruff and dark-grey, tufted head crest make them easy to pick out from the shore. Indeed, it’s difficult to find a more attractive and intriguing subject on our waterways at this time of year.
FEATHERS AND FASHION
Unfortunately, the great crested grebe has been a victim of its beauty. During the 19th century, the bird’s striking head plumes became a much-sought-after decoration for the hats and undergarments of Victorian ladies. At the time of year when the birds should have been courting and breeding freely, they were instead mercilessly hunted almost to the point of extinction in the UK. By 1860, numbers of great crested grebes totalled barely 50 breeding pairs.
It wasn’t just the grebe’s head plumes that excited Victorian fashion followers; even the bird’s thickly feathered skin was removed to be dried and processed into a novelty clothing material called ‘grebe fur’. The plunder didn’t stop there; being avid amateur naturalists, the Victorians also stole grebe eggs for food or sale to collectors.
Fortunately, the devastating decline in the number of grebes and other water birds in the UK provoked enough alarm among the political and legislative establishment of the day that the birds were protected by law. In effect, the plight of the great crested grebe in mid-19th-century Britain led to the birth of the Biritish conservation movement, and ultimately its own salvation.
The birds became the subject of one of the earliest national censuses of a single animal species when, in 1931, The Times promoted the Great Crested Grebe Enquiry. About 1,000 volunteers surveyed a similar number of lakes and rivers to produce the most accurate count at the time of grebe numbers. The enquiry concluded that the UK had a population of about 1,200 breeding pairs.
More than 80 years later, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reckons that the UK is now home to around 5,300 breeding pairs of great crested grebes. Winter migration sees this figure rise to about 23,000 pairs, a far cry from the precarious populations of 150 years ago, and an example of a British conservation success story.
Today, great crested grebes reside year round throughout Wales and England (except Cornwall) and as far north as central Scotland. The species’ global range is vast, stretching across most of Europe and central and southern Asia, with scattered colonies in Africa and Australasia. According to Wetlands International, the global population of great crested grebes numbers more than a million birds, although the migratory behaviour of the species makes it difficult to calculate a reliable figure, let alone determine any overall population trends.
Another factor that has helped the species’ survival in modern times is the grebe’s adaptability to both fresh and brackish water; it’s equally at home on large freshwater lakes as in swamps and estuaries. Landscapes altered by the construction of reservoirs, ornamental lakes or fish ponds, or the flooding of disused gravel pits, are also home to breeding populations.
DANCES WITH WEEDS
Whatever the choice of water-based habitat, great crested grebes require a plentiful supply of aquatic plants so they can build nesting platforms in the middle of the water. Alternatively, they will choose secluded sites among reed beds or flooded thickets close to the water’s edge.
An abundance of aquatic vegetation is also vital for another important aspect of grebe behaviour – the intriguing and spectacular courtship display known as the ‘weed dance’. Capturing this extraordinary display in a sequence of stills or on video is something of a bird photographer’s holy grail.
Typically, the performance begins with a pair of grebes facing each other, crests raised, and flaring their fiery throat feathers. They shake their heads and dip their beaks repeatedly for around half a minute before one grebe dives beneath the surface, followed by the other. Seconds later, both birds break the surface, each with a beakful of weed, and proceed to confront each other, rising out of the water chest to chest, necks outstretched and feet paddling frantically. The grebes will shake their weed ‘offerings’ vigorously, almost beak-to-beak, before the display finishes with the weed slipping back to the water.
A successful ‘weed dance’ results in the pair mating and then building a raft out of reeds, weeds and other vegetation to support the nest.
TELEPHOTOS AND CONVERTERS
Great crested grebes usually have to be photographed from a distance. This is because they rarely come to shore; with a pair of legs set well back on their bodies, they’re fairly clumsy on those few occasions when they do set foot on land. It’s as if nature intended them to be on the water as much as possible. As a result, and particularly with their habit
of building raft nests in the middle of lakes, they require longer lenses to get a frame-filling composition.
A telephoto with a focal length of at least 300 millimetres will be required, but even longer lenses may be needed, depending on the camera-to-subject distance. Wider aperture (‘fast’) lenses at longer focal lengths of say 400, 500 or 600 millimetres can be very expensive, so a workable compromise is to use a slower telephoto zoom and boost the ISO rating in order to maximise the shutter speed at smaller working apertures. Image noise is less of an issue on newer digital SLR cameras because resolution at higher ISO settings has improved markedly in recent years.
An interesting trend among bird photographers is a preference for using a 2x teleconverter on a shorter fast telephoto such as a 300-millimetre f/2.8, instead of buying a more expensive 500- or 600-millimetre lens. Not only does this save a lot of money, but the combination of 2x converter and 300-millimetre f/2.8 is far more portable and convenient – the converter can just slip into a pocket.
True, adding the 2x converter results in a 600-millimetre f/5.6 focal length – a full stop slower than a 600-millimetre f/4. However, thanks to technological innovations, using a converter will only mean a slight change in image resolution, depth of field and background bokeh.
FLIGHT AND REFLECTIONS
Because great crested grebes make a series of rapid movements when performing their courtship display, the primary technical consideration is to maintain a fast, motion-freezing shutter speed. Exposures of around 1/1500sec or faster are necessary to ensure that the birds’ frantic shaking, twisting and diving isn’t blurred on camera.
From a distance and with the aperture wide open, it’s vital that you have complete faith in your camera’s autofocus (AF) system. A moving subject requires the AF mode be set to continuous, so that the AF sensors track the subject and keep it focused as it moves.
With a fast enough shutter speed and rapid-response AF, the other main factor to consider in order to get a crisply focused image is the support for your camera and lens. Tripods are the obvious first choice, particularly when working with long lenses, but sometimes the position and circumstances don’t allow their use.
Also, if shooting from the water’s edge, a low position close to the water will produce a more realistic perspective – at the same level as the subject. This will mean crouching down and resting the camera and lens on the available terrain. In this instance, a groundsheet to keep your body dry and a beanbag to support the lens will ensure a comfortable and stable position as you focus on a pair of grebes getting excited on weed.
Spend time observing the grebes and their behaviour patterns before taking any photographs. This will allow you to ascertain favoured roosts and whether they have a mate, and see where the light falls best on their plumage
Set the AF mode to continuous focus. That way, even if the birds are moving serenely on a tranquil stretch of water, you’ll be able to focus quickly if they suddenly decide to take flight or start the first moves of a weed dance
Shoot at maximum aperture. This reduces depth of field to a minimum. As long as the eyes are in focus, it will ensure that the bird stands out from a defocused background
Venture too close to the water’s edge. High reeds are favourite cover for great crested grebes and other water birds, especially for nests. It’s illegal to disturb protected (Schedule 1) species at nest sites – that includes the great crested grebe
Handhold your telephoto lens unless you have set a very fast shutter speed and are good at keeping your hands steady. Use a tripod or find a position where you can rest the lens on a beanbag
Use a slow shutter speed. Shoot at 1/1500sec or faster to freeze any action during courtship displays or when birds take flight. A fast shutter speed also reduces the risk of image blur from any external vibrations or lens movements
The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe by Julian Huxley, Jonathan Cape, hb, £24
Birds of the Wetlands by James A Hancock, Poyser, hb, £24.99
History of British Birds: Volume 2, Water Birds by Thomas Bewick, Cambridge University Press, pb, £26.99
Lens option: 2x teleconverter
Although not strictly a camera lens, a teleconverter still uses a combination of optical elements to reflect and magnify light with as little aberration and distortion as possible.The Nikon TC-20E III 2x teleconverter (£389) is the first to use an aspherical lens element in its construction. The result is a marked improvement in resolution and clarity compared to other 2x converters.
Lens option: Fast telephoto zoom
Fast-aperture telephotos have mostly been the preserve of fixed focal lengths, but that’s changing rapidly. The Sigma 120–300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM (£2,800) features optical stabilisation to reduce vibrations from handholding and a hypersonic lens motor for near-silent autofocus operation. There’s also a tripod collar for balanced tripod support.
Camera option: High-speed DSLR
Nikon has updated its top of the range D4 pro model camera with the new D4s (£5,000, body only), which boasts a rapid 11fps continuous shooting mode capable of taking 176 RAW files or 200 jpeg images in a single burst – ideal for rapidly moving subjects. Maximum ISO rating has been expanded to an incredible 409,600, so if you’re after a camera to photograph a black cat in a coalmine with the lamps out, look no further.
This story was published in the May 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine