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Greabe Lake, my favorite ballet!

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Photo by Brian Currie, Idaho Department of Fish and Game Photo by Brian Currie, Idaho Department of Fish and Game

The Western Grebe - a Bird in Hand

This is the perfect time to turn off the television, get up off the couch, and seriously consider a life-changing conversion. Yes, now is time, today is the day, to become a birder. Why? Because the grebes are dancing, specifically the Western grebe. There are few things as exciting and fun to watch than the courting rituals of this bird. It is a synchronized choreography that is unmatched elsewhere in the bird world. At least in our area. 

In late spring Western grebes get ready to breed and raise a family. Though they pair for life, they still conduct their elaborate mating ritual every spring before copulation. The “married” pair will begin with mirrored movements, such as arcing their necks in exaggerated preening movements or grandly dipping their long, yellowish beaks into the water. Back and forth, back and forth, the one mirrors the movement of the other. The male will also give the female a present, such as a fish to eat. Then, suddenly, they burst into a rush and run parallel upon the water surface, necks arced in s-curves, bills pointed in the air, and their half-open wings trailing behind them  They speed along side-by-side, splashing mightily, for about thirty yards before ending the dance with a simultaneous dive into the water. Truly it is spectacular. 

So how can the novice birder distinguish a Western grebe from other species of grebes, let alone loons and similar birds? The Western grebe is quite distinctive. It is a medium-sized bird, smaller than a Canada goose, but bigger than a mallard duck. It is slim in build and its long and very slender neck is a field mark. The head is a large lateral oval perch horizontally upon the neck, and which tapers into a very long stabber of a beak. 

The coloration of the Western also separates it from the other grebes. The prominent color of the body is a soft blackish brown. Perhaps “dark” is a better word. The distinctive neck is white on three sides, with the dark from the back climbing up behind from a high collar. The cheeks and throat are white and the top of the angular head is black. The two colors meet at the eye line—white below, black above. The eye is an unnatural red. It looks like the bird is trying to be Euro-chic with brightly colored contact lenses. Its look doesn’t work, but that’s what the good Lord gave it. 

Now, if you are really fortunate you might be out watching the Westerns dance, dive, and do whatever it is that these grebes do—and it might not even be a Western! How’s that? You might be watching a pair of Clark’s grebes. The Clark’s grebe is the Western’s near-identical cousin. The Clark is virtually indistinguishable from the Western—virtually the same mating dance, size, habitat, and coloration. The only difference, at least for our purposes, is the coloration around the eye. If the black part of the head completely surrounds the eye, the bird is a Western grebe. If the eye is instead encircled with white, it is a Clark’s grebe. In addition, the Clark’s bill is bright yellow, whereas the Western’s is more drab and with a hint of green. There are enough other differences between the two birds to justify making them into separate species, but these are not discernible from your end of the binoculars. So, for practical birding purposes, limit the differences between the two birds to the eye area and the bill.  

Like many other diving birds, Western grebes eat a variety of underwater life. Fish, crawdads, amphibians—whatever moves. They do not normally overwinter in our area; they would rather spend the cold season on the Pacific coast. After the chicks are born, both parents will carry the babies on their backs. This is a wonderful sight and quite accessible to see if you are determined. Of course, now that you’ve seen the birds dance you are so entranced with birding that you’ll never leave the house without your binoculars. Good job! And more importantly, happy birding! 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birding, A Bird in Hand, western grebe

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