Favorite Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

I like all the grebes we see here, but my favorite is the Pied-billed Grebe. It doesn’t have big dramatic contrasts in body coloring like the big Clark’s or Western Grebes, nor does it show flashy breeding plumage like the little Horned or Eared Grebes. Its only halfway showy feature is that black band across its beak, from which it gets its name (“pied” = contrasting colors).

This bird has superpowers. Its muscular jaws can crush a crayfish and snap off its claws. It has exquisite control over its buoyancy; it can submerge slowly and silently until only its eyes and nostrils remain above water, and it can maneuver in that posture like a submarine. It can crash dive by spreading its wings, thrusting its body underwater and throwing water several feet into the air. It brooks no nonsense from other birds; even large grebes tend to move away when they see a Pied-billed Grebe dive in their direction. It propels itself underwater by its feet, and it has the unique ability, shared by no other bird, of rotating its feet 90 degrees between its power stroke and its recovery stroke, minimizing drag. Other wetland species rely on the presence of this bird as an indicator that a given area is a high quality habitat. (Source.) This is a very talented bird, much to be respected.

Whether this individual is locally resident somewhere or whether it’s just stopping over on migration is an open question. They are known to breed year round in California, but they tend to prefer fresh or brackish water with vegetation that they can use to make and anchor their floating nests. Historical pictures of our Bay show an abundance of reeds along a shoreline marked by wetlands fed by creeks. That’s Pied-billed Grebe breeding territory, and it’s vanished, apart from a few preserved wetlands here and there in the Delta. I spotted it on the north side of the park, not in the more brackish waters at the Schoolhouse Creek outfall (MAP). So, my guess is that this bird is a migrant on its way back up someplace where ponds are just thawing now. They’re known as among the earliest to arrive as winter loses its grip. They migrate at night. How they navigate hasn’t been studied, but quite likely they have similar resources as songbirds that navigate by the stars and the earth’s magnetic field.

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

P.S. Grant for Pollinator Garden Approved

The Alameda County Fish and Game Commission has approved the grant application that the Chavez Park Conservancy filed to establish a native plant pollinator garden in the park. See “Hope for Pollinators,” Feb. 25 2022. Details tomorrow.

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