Backstroke

Clark’s Grebe (Aechmophorous clarkii)

I was watching this big grebe preening in the usual way, poking its beak into its feathers hither and yon, when suddenly it assumed the position in the photo above. It looked like the bird was doing the backstroke. Of course, that’s an illusion. Its breast remains in the water and its wings are up. What gives it the look of being inverted is the way it’s twisted its neck backward. It looks as if the left mandible of its beak in the photo is the top and the right mandible is the bottom, just the reverse of the actual. I’ve seen these birds do wonderfully graceful dance moves with their necks, mostly with the beak pointed downward or sideways. Here the bird shows that its head can also flex backward at nearly 90 degrees relative to its long neck. I’m guessing that the bird followed its preening session with this extreme stretch to get the kinks out of its neck vertebrae. It has 21 of the latter, more than the smaller grebes, and individual muscles attach to each of them (Source), giving the bird the means to perform the acrobatic courtship performances for which it’s famous. I felt lucky to capture this image as I’d never seen this posture before, nor since.

Clark’s Grebe (Aechmophorous clarkii)

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