I’d made my loop around the park counterclockwise and thought I was done for the morning. Then out of nowhere, these little grebes appeared close to shore, and another different one a bit further out, and that led my eye to a quartet of big ones in the middle.
The pair in the video above are Horned Grebes in their winter (nonbreeding) plumage. They look similar to Eared Grebes, but there are clear enough differences. (See “Eared? Horned? Small Grebe ID 101” November 12 2019). The white cheek below the eye and the straight light-colored bill with the whitish tip, as well as the red line from the eye to the base of the beak, make the case.
Males and females look alike, with males slightly larger. After elaborate courtship rituals, they form monogamous pairs. They do their breeding up north (mostly North and West Canada, Alaska) and migrate in small groups by night. Widespread human interference with their breeding habitats has reduced their numbers and they are now internationally listed as “Vulnerable.” Here are individual portraits of the two Horned Grebes in the above video:
A little further out in the North Basin my favorite grebe suddenly popped to the surface, a Pied-billed Grebe. As I’ve written previously, these birds are small and they won’t win beauty contests, but they have superpowers. They’re masters of their buoyancy, able to cruise at any body level, including wholly submerged with just the eyes and nostrils above water, like a submarine. They also have vise-grip jaws able to crush shrimp, crabs, and shellfish with ease. They have a strong sense of their territory. Other swimming birds, including other grebes, tend to get out of the way in a hurry when they see this bruiser diving in their direction. This individual dove occasionally but spent long minutes above the water preening. They have an enormous range, breeding in the central and northern states and in Canada, and wintering all over the U.S. and large parts of South America. They’re very adaptable to different habitats and their survival is not currently of concern.
Viewing this individual led me eyes further out, where a quartet of big grebes, Clark’s specifically, was cruising northward in the choppy waters that prevailed out there. Here are two of them: