The Horned Grebe is a common winter species along the Edmonds waterfront and throughout the inland marine waters. Most of Washington’s winter population spend the breeding season in British Columbia before returning to Puget Sound in the fall. Small numbers breed in Eastern Washington but they do not favor the salinity of many lakes in that part of the state.
In the first photo you see the Horned Grebe in basic plumage, as it is seen in fall and winter in Edmonds. The second photo shows alternate or breeding plumage. Most of the time when we see the Horned Grebe in Edmonds, we see a smallish, mostly gray and white seabird whose only distinctive marking is a red eye. Then the transformation starts in mid-March. By the end of April, most birds remaining on the Edmonds waterfront are in complete alternate plumage, as is the bird in the second photo. This nondescript bird of winter transforms itself into the dandy of its breeding marshes. Note the rich rust color on its neck and flanks, and the solid yellow patch on the sides of the head. When viewed from behind, the yellow feathers resemble horns.
All grebes are swimmers and divers. Their legs are placed to the rear of their bodies for use in propulsion under water. You won’t see them waddling along a beach or the shore break because their weight is not balanced over their legs. You will rarely see Horned Grebes in flight when they are in Edmonds waters. When the do fly, getting airborne requires a long foot-pattering.
Horned Grebes eat insects, crustaceans, and fish. Their diet varies with habitat and season. On the Sound in winter they may eat mostly fish and mollusks.
The Horned Grebe essentially is silent across its winter range. On its breeding grounds, the Horned Grebe’s vocalization is a high, excited chatter. Listen to it at this link: https://www.xeno-canto.org/103563.
Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.