Feathered Jaws

Pied-billed Grebe in breeding plumage (Podilymbus podiceps)

This little grebe is not to be underestimated. It has two superpowers. It can control its buoyancy to paddle underwater with just its head showing, like a submarine periscope. The other is its jaws. They’re way shorter than the other grebes we see. They’ve been compared to a chicken’s beak. But make no mistake: they’re powerful. This grebe can effortlessly crush the shell of a crab or a shrimp or other crustacean. If you should ever get close to one — unlikely! — keep your fingers clear.

On this occasion, the bird paddled gently southward not five yards from the eastern shore of the park at a time when the sun was still high enough to reach it. That’s the closest I’ve ever had the opportunity to film it. Even though I hovered tall over the bank above it, the bird totally ignored me. I like that in a bird.

Pied-billed Grebes don’t show the ring around their bills very plainly, or at all, in the winter time, or when they are juveniles. This bird was a breeding adult in summer plumage, with the ring around the bill very obvious. No way to tell whether it was male or female, they look identical. Male and female also take approximately equal shares in nest building, egg-sitting, transporting the young on their backs, and feeding them. Outside the reproduction season, they tend to be solitary, and rarely congregate in flocks. Also no way to tell whether it’s a migrant or a local resident. Some of them breed all over California and neighbor states; others do their breeding in summer in the north-central or northeastern states and in northwest Canada, go south for the winter, and stop here for a break during migration back north.

Pied-billed Grebe in breeding plumage (Podilymbus podiceps)

More about them: Wikipedia Cornell Audubon In Chavez Park

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