Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Podiceps nigricollis – black-necked grebe

Podiceps nigricollis

Podiceps nigricollis C.L.Brehm
Family: Podicipedidae

Almost completely aquatic and even flightless for much of the year, the Black-necked Grebe is the most numerous and widespread species in its family in world terms. In the Northern Ireland it finds itself on the edge of its Eurasian range, and thus is both a very rare breeder and rare winter visitor. It is a small grebe, larger than Little but smaller than Great Crested Grebe. In breeding plumage it is virtually unmistakable with black neck contrasting strongly with yellow ear tufts.

In brief

  • In Northern Ireland, is a rare, mainly winter visitor to sea loughs and lakes
  • Almost never seen on land, being highly aquatic in behaviour
  • Can occur almost any month, but with a substantial winter bias
  • An Amber listed U.K. species due to small number of breeding/wintering birds
  • It is considered to have bred only once in Northern Ireland

Species description
Slightly smaller than a Teal, this diving bird is largely seen in two distinctly different plumages. In summer the entire headparts, breast and back are black with an attention-grabbing fan of golden - yellow plumes emanating from behind a striking reddish eye. Flanks are chestnut and the infrequently seen belly is white. In winter it becomes rather monochrome, with the chestnut and the golden eye - plumes disappearing, to leave a bird which is black above, with a white throat, extending to the rear of the ear coverts and greyish, rather dingy fore-neck, breast and flanks.

Life cycle
This species is generally colonial as a breeder, from only a few pairs to as many as 2000 pairs having been recorded. It uses lakes and ponds with shallow depth and prefers plenty of emergent vegetation to stimulate its main prey, insects, although it will take fish and other small invertebrates. The floating nest is a rather low pile of vegetation attached to emergent plants. Clutch size is 3 - 4 on average, taking 3 weeks to hatch, after which the young leave with the parents, rarely to ever return to the nest. It has often been associated breeding in black-headed gull colonies.

Similar species
Black-necked Grebe has a very close congener in Slavonian Grebe. In summer the latter shows a chestnut, rather than black fore-neck. Slavonian Grebe too has a golden tuft of feathers to the rear of the eye which sweep upwards and backwards, rather than a fan, drooping downwards and backwards as with Black-necked Grebe. In winter plumage the two species are more difficult to separate, but a good view will show Black-necked Grebe to have the following: a higher, peaked crown rather than a sloping crown; a finer all dark bill, rather than a more dagger - shaped, pale - tipped bill; and a dark downward extension of the ear coverts to below eye level, rather than contrasting clean white cheeks.

How to see this species
Not recorded at all in some years, this rare species is generally seen only by active birders in Northern Ireland. Monitoring information sites on the internet or NIBA phone line (028 91467408) could give a heads up. The tendency is toward wintering birds on sea loughs, such as Strangford and Foyle; with spring/summer birds in freshwater, such as Lough Neagh or Lough Beg. Local reservoirs too, would be worth a look on a regular basis.

Current status
An adult bird with one young, on Lough Erne in 1944 remains the only record of breeding in Northern Ireland. Colonization of Ireland occurred in the early twentieth century, with the epicentre being Lough Funshinagh, Co. Roscommon, which held 300 pairs in 1932. By the middle of the century, only a few isolated pairs were recorded, the last one in 1982. Most recent Northern Ireland records are of single birds in winter.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • Irish Red Data Book species classed as rare
  • Amber listed in the U.K. with a breeding population of c. 50 pairs and a wintering population of c. 120 individuals

Threats/Causes of decline
Vulnerable to oil pollution when wintering at sea. Human disturbance and drainage of waterways also poses some problems, as does the presence of introduced predators, such as mink.

Conservation of this species

Current action
No relevant actions currently. If breeding is suspected monitoring would be instigated,

Proposed objectives/actions

What you can do
Participate in WeBS counts around our coast and inland waterways. Report any sightings to N.I.B.A online or at 028 91467408

Further information

RSPB Factsheet

BTO Factsheet

UK Birds of Conservation Concern

Birds of Conservation Concern Ireland

Deane, C.D. (1954). Birds in Northern Ireland. Ulster Museum, Belfast.
Hutchinson, C.D. (1989) Birds in Ireland. Poyser.
Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D. & Grant, P.J. (2009). 2nd Edition. Collins Bird Guide. Harper Collins, London.
Whilde, A. (1993). Irish Red Data Book 2: Vertebrates. HMSO.

Text written by:
Allen & Mellon