Grebes are some of my favorite waterfowl. However, they're not necessarily easy to identify. I might be with friends and say "There's a Pied-billed Grebe." They'll say "Where?" I'll say, "Uh-oh. It dove." We'll wait for a few minutes that seems very long. Finally it will surface quite a distance away from where I saw it. I'll say, "There it is." They will say, "Where?" I'll give them directions. By the time they find where I'm talking about, it will have dived again. This is problematic.
The Pied-billed can dive up to twenty feet. It is a powerful swimmer because of its lobed and partly webbed toes and flat claws. Often the birder only sees a neck and head above the water- just like a serpent. It can do that because of its solid bones and ability to force out air from its body and feathers to lower itself into the water. It's a handy way of protecting itself from predators.
Its feet and legs are near its rear end. That feature which causes a difference in its center of gravity make it difficult for this bird to run and take off to flight from the ground.
A horned grebe in typical calm water.
A horned grebe
Here's another very unusual feature. This bird and its young eat the adult's feathers. Fifty percent of the adult's stomach contents have shown to be consumed of feathers. Biologists think that this might be to prevent fish bones from harming stomach walls. (Most other birds consume small pebbles and sand to aid digestion.)
The Pied-billed is the smallest of the grebes that we see in our area. It's about thirteen inches long, or a little longer than a robin and brownish in color with a thick bill circled by a black ring.
Mostly it displays vocally in mating or to protect its territory. Both the male and female work together to build a nest of decayed vegetation held down by reeds or rushes in shallow water. Around here, the eggs are laid in early April to late May. It will carry its young on its back- sometimes even when it dives.
Look for it on lakes, ponds, slow-moving streams and marshes- any water with lots of plants. It eats aquatic insects, snails, fish, frogs and some plants. Mostly it is a loner, although groups form in the fall. It heads south around the middle of September to the middle of November. However, it might overwinter in a place like Dunkirk Harbor where the power plant keeps the water open.
A much more colorful grebe in our area is the Horned Grebe. It's just a smidgen larger than the Pied-billed. Similarities include the nest, habitat, and habit of eating feathers. Its neck is reddish and has a bright yellow spot on its head. This is our only local grebe with gray scales on its back.
For a diet, it consumes more crustaceans than the Pied-billed. It can dive up to three minutes and travel five hundred feet under water. The Horned has interesting courtship displays. The male and female both raise their breasts out of the water and travel side-by-side. They also perform a "weed display" and shake their heads a lot. It has been seen here between October and May.
In the 1800s, the middle class grew which caused more people to buy nonessential items. Men and women decorated their clothing and hats with bird feathers. Herons were the most popular, but by 1900, about sixty species (including grebes) were killed for this purpose. The National Audubon Society and American Ornithologists' Union were instrumental in changing people's attitudes towards birds and changing fashion away from feathers.
In 1986, the Horned Grebe was placed on the National Audubon Society's Blue List. On of its problems, as with the Bald Eagle, was thinning of its eggshells due to PCBs digested in their food. The Blue List count resulted from data collected by many field observers. Then, hopefully government policies would lean towards species protection and bird research.
"Grebes often mistake large areas of blacktop for water and try to land. Because their feet are so far back, it's often impossible for them to take off and they flop around on the ground, looking injured. Wildlife Rehabilitators take a lot of these calls in the spring, as does Audubon. But grebes are just one species that is aided by the big-hearted wildlife rehab community.
Audubon is taking a field trip to Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center on Friday, March 27. The donation for the trip, just $5, will go to the Center for its great work. Come with us and learn about how the rehabilitators help the wildlife "get back on its feet" and return to the wild. Meet the non-releasable residents, too! It promises to be a great day! For more information, time of departure and carpooling, call the Audubon!"
Birders and other nature watchers are still performing important research in citizen science. Our Jamestown Audubon Center and Sanctuary is very active in this work. We are located at 1600 Riverside Road, off of Route 62, between Warren and Jamestown. Our hours are from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 1-4:30 p.m. on Sundays. The trails are open daily from dawn to dusk. Call 569-2345 for more information.
Ann Beebe is the volunteer in charge of the gardens at the Audubon.