Wild Bird Photography by Steve Oakes

Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

Above: Adult black-necked grebe in summer plumage.
Above: Adult black-necked grebe in summer plumage.



Distribution map

Areas marked are approximations only for use as a guide.
They are not indicative of population density

Key: Green=All year; Yellow=Summer, Blue=Winter, Red=Passage Only


Black-necked grebes can be found in very small numbers at all times of year in or around the UK. In winter they are usually found on large freshwater lakes and reservoirs usually close to the coast. In summer there are just a few, established breeding sites, although the good news is that the breeding range seems to be expanding.

They are a small grebe only a little bigger than the more common little grebe. In winter they are quite drab by comparison to their summer outfits. In winter they have a dark grey back and wings. The neck is dark gray at the back fading to almost white at the front and the head is almost black at the crown and fades to white at the chin. The flanks are finely streaked grey and white and the belly is almost white but with some streaking. The legs are black as is the beak which is short and slightly up-turned. The eye is an almost scary, bright red! In this plumage it is easy to confuse with other rare grebes. The winter red-necked grebe is much larger and has a distinctive bright yellow patch at the base of the beak. the slavonian grebe is similar in size and colour but has a larger, straighter, thicker beak and the dark cap and white chin are separated by a clean-cut line and do not fade into each other.

In summer it's impossible to confuse these birds. The black necked grebes summer outfit is unique and quite stunning. It has jet black head, neck, beak, back, wings, legs and tail. The flanks are a warm burnt orange and this fades to creamy white belly. On either side of the head is a quite amazing golden fan and the scary red eye is retained.

There are very few of these birds in the UK and the RSPB (with the co-operation of Birdguides and other such web sites) like to keep their breeding sites quiet. I guess this is out of fear of excessive disturbance or even egg theft. However, Birdguides are quite happy to report sightings at non-breeding sites and winter sightings, so watch for these and you may get lucky.

As for breeding sites, where you will have the best chance to see them and photograph them in their summer finery, I'm afraid I don't share the RSPBs view and neither do the administrators of the premier breeding site in the north west. This is Woolston Eyes, near Warrington in Cheshire. The Woolston Eyes Conservation Group who administer the site on behalf of the Manchester Ship Canal Company make no secret on their web site of the fact that the grebes have been breeding here every year for quite some time. I doubt that there is a bird-watcher in the north west who doesn't know this apart from someone who is perhaps just starting out. So I fail to see the point in all the secrecy. Besides I hate it when I see 'Undisclosed site' on pictures loaded onto Birdguides.

There is a second site where a very small number, possibly even just one pair, have bred a number of times in recent years. It's a place where you might even get a better picture. At present the site manager are also been reluctant to make this public but as it's becoming so well known they are relaxing this restriction. When they finally give trying to conceal it, I'll mention it on this page. I should point out that it is not a guaranteed site.

At Woolston you'll need to be lucky to get a good picture. The hides are all quite some distance from the birds. With patience they do at times approach a little closer and you may then get a better shot. I still don't have one I'm entirely satisfied with, so I guess I'll have to keep trying.

You can see all of my photographs of these birds in the wild by clicking here.

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