My Favorite Grebe

Pied-bill;ed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps). Nostrils are see-through.

My favorite grebe appeared on the North Basin water this day: the Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps).

This isn’t the most beautiful of the grebes, far from it. It doesn’t have the picturesque courtship rituals of the big grebes, like the weed ceremony and walking on water. But it’s the most versatile, most talented, and most feared of the grebe family. The big grebes — Western and Clark’s — flee in a hurry if the Pied-billed dives in their direction. Even birds much bigger, such as Canada Geese, aren’t safe if they intrude on the Pied-billed’s breeding territory. So this is kind of an underdog among grebes that by its feisty nature has earned respect from the big guys.

And not only for its spirit. Its beak isn’t big, but it’s backed by powerful muscles. It can crunch crayfish with a single bite. It has an omnivorous appetite when it comes to marine protein. It’ll eat anything from bugs in the air to snails and shrimp and frogs and all kinds of fish, including some surprisingly big ones. It has unique marine navigation skills. It can dive and forage underwater like other grebes, propelled by its webbed feet.

It can also evade detection or sneak up on surface prey by cruising completely submerged except for its eyes and nostrils. If threatened, it can perform an explosive dive that takes it underwater in a split second while throwing up a column of spray six feet high.

Males and females cooperate in building floating nest platforms and in incubating the eggs and feeding the hatchlings.

Oh, and it can fly. Even though its wings are rather short and stubby, it can cover a lot of territory. Some individuals flew all the way to Hawaii and established a breeding population there. They’ve been seen in Europe. They migrate by night.

These abilities have helped the Pied-billed Grebe survive in a broader territory than any other grebe. It lives year-round in large parts of North and South America. Some fraction of the population migrates to northern Canada for breeding in summer, and then heads south to mix with the year-round residents.

Whether this one was a resident or a migrant, I could not tell for sure. It was in winter plumage, with the black band across the bill mostly blurred out and the bill a dull grey. I saw one in breeding plumage in June two years ago (“Feathered Jaws,” Jun 9 2021). Its bill was a bright white and the black band was sharp and distinct. Apart from that one, I’ve seen them here only in fall and winter months.

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