Bird Lore: Western Grebe

Western Grebe
Western Grebe

The Western Grebe is a gregarious diving bird. It nests in colonies and it winters in flocks, mainly on sheltered coastal bays and estuaries. A large flock, whose size varies from year to year, winters in the offshore waters between Edmonds and Whidbey Island. The flock has been known to move up the west side of Whidbey Island into Saratoga Passage. As it wanders around, isolated birds or much smaller groups will come in closer to the Edmonds shore. This large grebe can be spotted easily by its darker body and long white neck with a black nape and crown. If the light is right, you may even appreciate its red eyes.

The Western Grebe, as is the same with other grebes, is not much of a walker. It is rare to see it on land because its legs are placed far back on its body to aid diving and underwater propulsion. It forages for fish by diving from the surface and swimming underwater. It will bring larger fish to the surface to eat. On its wintering grounds it is rarely seen in flight as it prefers to avoid danger by diving. If it does fly, it needs to walk across the water, beating its wings furiously to become airborne. Many of this species overwinter at Grays Harbor on the Washington coast. A fall phenomenon is finding Western Grebes, probably young birds, on the beach at Ocean Shores. They are unable to gain flight once on the beach and they seem to be unable to swim under the strong surf. If they are not moved for release along the calmer harbor shore, they become emaciated and die. PAWS has been involved in the rehabilitation of these birds. Local wildlife naturalist Kevin Mack explained the beaching phenomenon and rehabilitation of many Western Grebes in 2006 at his blog: archives/WildAgain/wild_2006_ 02_15.htm.

Courtship displays take place on the water. A well-known display is called “rushing.” The two birds turn to one side and lunge forward together, with their bodies completely out of the water. They then race across the water side by side, with their necks curved forward. They also dance on the water with bits of weed in their bills. This You Tube video shows the courtship displays of both the Western Grebe and its closely related species, the Clark’s Grebe: com/watch?v=AkshIwdw7DY. It is a beautiful video of dramatic courtship, worth your time to watch.

The nest site is in a shallow-water marsh. Both sexes build the nest. There are typically 2 – 4 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for about 24 days. The eggs do not hatch at the same time so it is not uncommon for the last egg to be abandoned in the nest. Within minutes after hatching, the young climb onto the back of a parent. You may want to watch this You Tube video of chicks riding on the backs of their parents: v=2mZm5_W-bTM. Both sexes feed the young. Age at first flight is about 10 weeks. This grebe has one brood per year.

The conservation status of the Western Grebe is that of least concern.There are thought to be about 80,000 breeding birds in North America. It was once hunted because its white breast and belly feathers were used in clothing and hats. This species is sensitive to pesticides and other causes of poor water quality. It can get entangled in fishing line. On coastal wintering grounds it is vulnerable to oil spills and it can be caught in gill nets. Its status is of concern along the edges of its range, such as in British Columbia and probably Washington. Birders have noted over the years a decline in the numbers of this species seen wintering in our northern part of Puget Sound.

You can listen to calls and songs in a Colorado breeding colony here: https://www.xeno-canto. org/205821. The begging call of a juvenile bird can be heard here: https://www.xeno-canto. org/143567.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

One Reply to “Bird Lore: Western Grebe”

  1. Thanks, Carol, for another of your excellent articles. They are always so fascinating and educational. I do hope they are available in schools or in library programs. The videos were a real treat.


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