Pied-billed Grebe

Podilymbus podiceps

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           13.5-14 in 
  • AOU Band code    PBGR

The Pied-billed Grebe (PBGR) is 13-1/2 to 14" long. Common, but not gregarious, on fresh and brackish water. Scarce on salt water in winter. The breeding adult is brown overall, with a black ring around a stout, whitish bill. It has a black chin and throat with a pale belly. In the winter the PBGRs lose the bill ring, the chin is white and the throat is tinged with pale rufous. Juvenile birds resemble winter adult but throat is much redder, conspicuous eye ring is absent, and head and neck are streaked with brown and white.

During breeding, its call include a loud cow cow cow cow cow, a loud keck keck when alarmed, and a soft cuk cuk cuk. It is usually quiet in the winter.  It feeds by diving underwater and catching fish, aquatic insects, frogs and crayfish.

The nest is an inconspicuous, shallow sodden platform of decaying vegetation, reeds and grass anchored in water among reeds and rushes. The female lays 4-7 bluish-green eggs. Incubation is 23 days. The young are carried on the back of an adult, sometimes even during dives. It sinks to hide, leaving only the head exposed. One nest could be seen in June-July from the viewing deck at Phantom Lake. Four young were hatched from July 8-11.

Martin Muller has been studying the PBGRs on Green Lake for many years. An extensive report of this study was published in Washington Birds 4 dated Dec. 1995 by the Wash. Ornithological Society.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Eared Grebe

Podiceps nigricollis

By Andrew McCormick

  • Length          13 in
  • Wingspan      16 in 
  • Weight           11 oz
  • AOU Band code    EAGR

The Eared Grebe is the most abundant member of its family in both North America and the world. Gregarious by nature it breeds in large colonies in southwestern Canada and central and western United States. After breeding, grebes congregate at the highly saline Great Salt Lake and Mono Lake and feed on brine shrimp (Cullen, et al). In general it prefers invertebrates and small crustaceans to fish and most of the time it forages by deep dives lasting around 20-30 seconds.

The Eared Grebe shares the Podiceps genus with the Horned Grebe (P. auritus) and the larger Red-necked Grebe (P. grisigena). Podiceps is from the Latin podex, the anal orifice, and pes, foot, referring to the fact that when swimming its feet appear to be coming out of its rump. Nigricollis, black-necked, is from the Latin niger, black, and collum, neck (Holloway). The bird was once called the Black-necked Grebe (Pough). Grebe is the French name for this type of bird. Eared refers to the wispy golden plumes of the breeding plumage near where ears would be. 

 As an uncommon visitor to Washington marine waters in winter, the Eared Grebe can be missed because of its similarity to the Horned Grebe which is close in size, shape and coloration. In basic (nonbreeding) plumage the Eared Grebe has a grayer front of the neck and face, while the Horned Grebe has a white neck and face with the black crown sharply separated along a line extending straight back from the bill (Cullen, et al). The Eared Grebe has a steeper slope to its forehead with its head peaked above the eye. 

In alternative (breeding) plumage the Eared Grebe has a black head and neck and yellow-orange fan-like feathers behind the eyes. Its eyes are red in all plumages except juveniles which have a yellowish eye. The bill is black and the neck and sides are chestnut. Like other grebes Eared Grebes have a complex courtship ritual that includes swimming side by side while calling loudly, facing each other and raising up chest to chest, and at the climax of the display rearing up and rushing across the water together (Kaufman).

Eared Grebes nest in large colonies on marshy lakes where both parents contribute to building a nest consisting of a floating platform of weeds. Three to five white eggs are incubated by both sexes for about three weeks. When the young can swim the adults may separate with each taking part of the brood. At times young grebes will ride on the back of an adult and remain there during underwater foraging. Their age at first flight is not well known (Kaufman).

In 1997 the population of Eared Grebes in North America was estimated at 4.1 Million individuals and the species is considered secure. Because they congregate in such large numbers they can be susceptible to large die-offs from food scarcity. The cause of a die-off estimated at 150,000 grebes at the Salton Sea in 1991 has not been explained.

Photo by Dan Streiffert

Photo by Dan Streiffert

Horned Grebe

Podiceps auritus

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           14 in 
  • Wingspan      18 in
  • Weight          1 lb
  • AOU Band code    HOGR

The Horned Grebe (HOGR) is about 14” long with a wingspan of 18” and weight is 1 lb. (450 g). The genus name Podiceps (POD-ih-seps) is from Greek pous, podos, meaning foot, referring to the placement of the legs extremely far back on the body. The species name auritus (aw-REE-tus) is Latin for eared, in allusion to its “horns”, or tufts of ear feathers. The HOGR is slightly larger and heavier than the Eared Grebe, with thicker neck, relatively larger, flat-topped head and straight bill. It is a small diver found mostly on northern marshes in summer, coastal bays in winter.
In WA state it is a common winter resident west of the Cascades, occurring singly, or in small groups, on protected marine waters and uncommon to fairly common on Columbia River reservoirs in winter. Uncommon summer resident in eastern WA, nests rarely in Okanogan and Northeast part of state. The HOGR usually migrate singly, by day along the coast and at night over land.

This grebe is duck-like with a small, straight black bill tipped with white in summer. In nesting plumage the head is black with golden ear tufts which extend from brilliant scarlet eyes to back of neck, fore neck and flanks are reddish, and this bird rides high in the water. In winter, it is mostly dark above and white below, with black cap contrasting with clear white cheeks and neck. The black on the nape narrows to a thin stripe. It flies directly, as do all grebes, and inflight with its neck and legs stretched to full extent resembles a small loon. Inflight the wings vibrate very rapidly and show a white patch at its shoulders.

The HOGR’s diet is mostly insects, crustaceans, and fish varying with habitat and season. In summer, it may eat mostly insects and crustaceans, while in the winter it may eat mostly fish. Like other grebes it swallows many feathers.

In winter this bird is often seen alone or in small flocks just outside the breaking waves, where it feeds. It tends to jump forward before diving down into the water. It forages by diving from the surface and swimming underwater, propelled by its feet. It also will take items from on or above the water’s surface. It usually is solitary in feeding, but has also been seen foraging with Surf Scoters.

Courtship displays involve posturing by both sexes. Both rise to a vertical position on the water with head feathers fully raised, turning heads rapidly. Both dive and come up with bits of week in bills, then rush across the water surface side by side carrying weeds.

The nest is in shallow water among marsh growth and is built by both sexes. It is a floating heap of wet plant material usually anchored to standing vegetation. There are usually 3-7 whitish to very pale green or buff eggs that become nest-stained with time. Incubation is 22-25 days by both sexes. The young can swim shortly after hatching and are fed by both parents, and often ride on a parent’s back. The age at first flight is 55-60 days. There usually is one brood per year, but sometimes two. When there are two broods, the young from the first brood may help feed the second.  

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Western Grebe

Aechmophorus Occidentalis

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           25 in 
  • AOU Band code    WEGR