Also known as the Dabchick, the Little grebe is, not unexpectedly, the smallest of the grebes found in the southern African region, and is also the most common and widespread. It is found almost throughout the region, with the exception of the semi-desert of the Kalahari, and is also extremely widespread outside of the region, being found across Europe, Asia and most of Africa. Its preferred habitats are dams and lakes, slow moving rivers and even the temporary pans that fill with water during the rainy season. They are known to move in response to changing water levels and seem very adept at locating new bodies of water.
The Little grebe is a small waterbird, just about 20 cm in length and the sexes are alike in size and in plumage colouration. They are predominantly dark brown above, with a rich rufous neck and cheeks. The gape is bright yellow and the eyes are red during the breeding season; the birds become somewhat duller outside the breeding season. The bill is black and pointed, with a white or yellow patch at the gape; the legs and feet are black. They are usually found in pairs or in small groups of up to six birds.
Little grebes are very good swimmers and divers, a trait that assists them in the pursuit of food. They eat fish, insects, frogs and tadpoles, the majority of which are caught while diving; they are able to stay under the water for up to 50 seconds although most dives are considerably shorter. In turn, Little grebes may be preyed upon by goshawks, eagles and otters. The call of the Little grebe is a high pitched “wee-wee-wee” that may be uttered singly or as a duet.
The Little grebe in monogamous and builds a floating nest from plant material, usually located at the water’s edge. The female lays a clutch of four to seven cream-coloured eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 20 days. After leaving the nest, the young birds have a habit of riding on the backs of their parents.
The scientific binomial for the Little grebe is Tachybaptus ruficollis; Tachybaptus from the Greek for a “swift dipper or diver”, and ruficollis from the Latin for “red-necked”. Thus the name describes a swift-diving bird with a red neck, which is a very apt description.