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Rare breeding bird dances its way to conservation success at RSPB nature reserves

Rare breeding bird dances its way to conservation success at RSPB nature reserves
  • The return of one of the rarest breeding birds in the UK, the Black-necked Grebe, has been marked with celebration as 2023 saw a record year for the species at RSPB nature reserves
  • RSPB St Aidan’s, near Leeds, is now home to around 30% of the UK breeding population of this rare and vulnerable species, while other RSPB nature reserves also saw a rise in the number of breeding pairs last year
  • The success of the species at RSPB nature reserves is thanks to dedicated conservation efforts to provide and restore vital wetland habitat on which the striking birds depend

Black-necked Grebes, one of the rarest breeding birds in the UK, are dancing their way into nature lovers’ hearts following their

Usually found in reedbeds and other well-vegetated wetlands, these small glossy black birds have vivid tufts of golden feathers behind their bright red eye and, at this time of year, begin to perform a captivating ‘sees the male and female swimming in tandem, mirroring each other’s movements, wagging heads and culminating in a ‘penguin dance’ as they rise up out of the water breast to breast. Once these efforts to woo a mate are successful, they go on to build floating nests amongst the reeds.

Following conservation efforts, breeding numbers of these striking birds are on the rise at RSPB nature reserves, especially at RSPB St Aidan’s Nature Park, near Leeds, which celebrated a record year for Black-necked Grebes in 2023 and is now home to around 30% of the UK population of this rare and vulnerable species.

At the West Yorkshire nature reserve, habitat work has been undertaken by the RSPB’s expert conservationists, including a team of volunteers, in order to carefully manage water levels and create new areas of shallow water and dense reeds within which the birds can perform their dance, feed and nest.

The record 18 breeding pairs that were counted at RSPB St Aidan’s also fledged the joint second highest count of chicks, 12 in total.  The fact that numbers of breeding pairs are increasing offers hope that future numbers of fledgling Black-necked Grebes will increase further.

Talking of the species’ success, John Ingham, warden at RSPB St Aidan’s, said: “Black-necked Grebes aren’t just one of the rarest breeding birds in the UK – they are also one of the most beautiful. Unmistakable with that piercing red eye, and golden ear tufts, at a distance they may be quite unassuming with their diminutive size, but up close they are simply stunning.

“Based on the successful breeding season last year and mild winter, we would hope for good numbers of Black-necked Grebe again this spring at RSPB St Aidan’s.  But as with much of our wildlife, they face many challenges such as loss of wetland habitats, extreme weather events caused by climate change, declines in small fish and invertebrates they rely on for feeding, predation, and potentially, increased incidences of diseases such as avian influenza.

Despite the challenges Black-necked Grebes are facing due to the nature and climate emergency, the birds are likely to continue to arrive at RSPB nature reserves throughout March, and numbers are expected to peak in mid-April before they disappear into the reeds to nest. Visitors are asked to keep to the paths to help these rare birds remain undisturbed, especially during the breeding season, though thankfully nature reserves such as RSPB St Aidan’s offer brilliant views of Black-necked Grebes from the network of paths.

A numerous bird throughout North America, Europe and Asia, the UK is right on the edge of the Black-necked Grebe’s breeding range, and so the UK population is very small in number. Over the last five years, the population has averaged at around 54 pairs, meaning the species is amber listed in the UK.

Main image: Black necked grebe Podiceps nigricollis, adult pair on lake, RSPB St Aidan’s Nature Park, Yorkshire, March