Grebes are diving birds that typically inhabit freshwater lakes, swamps, estuaries and ponds. They tend to sit high on the water, with their long necks and pointed bills creating a distinctive silhouette. The hoary-headed grebe is locally common in Australia and vagrant to New Zealand, where it has bred. It may be mistaken for a young New Zealand dabchick.
A small greyish grebe, paler on the sides, with a stout straight bill, short legs and small wings. In all plumages a broad pale wing stripe is visible in flight, and sometimes when resting. In breeding plumage they develop distinctive whitish (hoary) streaks on the head. In non-breeding plumage a dark cap extending to below the eye contrasts with the pale cheeks and side of neck. From behind, hoary-headed grebes often show a fluffy white downy rear. They are usually silent.
Similar species: very similar in size and structure to New Zealand dabchick. In breeding plumage, hoary-headed grebe has a paler, more streaked head, an inconspicuous eye, a small pale tip to the bill, and pale buff neck and breast; New Zealand dabchick has a rufous neck and breast, and a prominent yellow eye. In non-breeding plumage, New Zealand dabchick is more rufous, and does not have the strongly capped appearance. Non-breeding Australasian little grebe also has a contrasting cap, but has a yellow eye, and a prominent pale flange at the base of the bill.
Distribution and habitat
Hoary-headed grebes are common on lakes throughout Australia. Vagrant to New Zealand, where they have occurred from the Snares Islands in the south to Northland. At least two pairs bred in Southland in the late 1970s.
New Zealand records
First recorded at the Snares Islands in February 1975, then shortly afterwards at Lake Horowhenua in 1975 & 1977, and Lagoon Creek, Southland 1975-76 (breeding). Two pairs bred in Southland in 1977-78. There were many scattered records throughout the South Island through to 1989, especially at Bromley sewage ponds (Christchurch), Lake Elterwater (Marlborough), and Redcliff Wetland Reserve (Southland). The only North Island records were Aupouri Peninsula, Far North (2 birds, 1987) and Tahaunui Stream, Gisborne (1998). After a 14-year gap, one was seen at Big Lagoon, Southland, in May 2012, one at Lake Hakapoua, Fiordland, in February 2013, and three at Lake Elterwater in August 2014. A pair bred at Lake Elterwater in November 2019.
Behaviour and ecology
Hoary-headed grebes are gregarious in Australia. They typically avoid the shoreline and prefer deeper water habitats. Totally aquatic except when nesting, hoary-headed grebes are wary, and often fly if disturbed. They swim with head and neck partly immersed followed by shallow dives for prey.
Primarily aquatic arthropods obtained by diving. Feeds during day and when lighting is poor forages on surface. No New Zealand data.
Barlow, M.L. 1976. Breeding of hoary-headed grebe in Southland. Notornis 23: 183-187.
Best, H.A. 1976. First sightings of the hoary-headed grebe (Podiceps poliocephalus) in New Zealand. Notornis 23: 182-183.
Chambers, S. 2000. Birds of New Zealand – locality guide. Arun Books: Auckland.
Checklist Committee (OSNZ). 2022. Checklist of the Birds of New Zealand (Fifth edition). Ornithological Society of New Zealand Occasional Publication No. 1. Wellington, Ornithological Society of New Zealand.
Fooks, P.; Reed, S.M. 1978. Hoary-headed grebe in Northland. Notornis 25: 158-159
Higgins, P.J.; Davies, S.J.J.F. (eds.) 1996. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 1. Ratites to Ducks. Oxford University Press: Melbourne, Australia.
Miskelly, C.M.; Crossland, A.C.; Sagar, P.M.; Saville, I.; Tennyson, A.J.D.; Bell, E.A. 2017. Vagrant and extra-limital records accepted by the Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee 2015-2016. Notornis 64: 57-67.
Robertson, H.; Heather, B. 1999. The Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Penguin Books, Auckland, N.Z.
Slater, P. (ed) 1979. A Field Guide to Australian Birds. Vol 1, Non passerines. Rigby Ltd, Sydney.
Jardine, S.; Miskelly, C. 2013 [updated 2022]. Hoary-headed grebe | taihoropī. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
Hoary-headed grebe | Taihoropī
- Breeding season
- Egg laying dates