Last fall, I fell in love while walking around Blue Heron Lake. The object of my infatuation was the cutest little aquatic bird with just a stump of a tail: a pied-billed grebe. I came across one floating in the still water on the small loop of the lake, with beautiful colors of lakeside fall foliage reflecting all around it. As the grebe paddled in place, it sent waves of concentric circles across the water. I was hooked.
Fish, frogs, and crustaceans make up the bulk of their diet. They even eat their own feathers, and likewise feed those feathers to their young. Apparently, this action forms a lining in their stomach that prevents the bones and cartilage of their prey from slipping down into the intestine. Then, from time to time, the birds regurgitate those parts.
Off and on through January, I spotted five pied-billed grebes. A couple of my birds had a black band on their normally white bills, (hence, “pied-billed,” i.e. bi-color, as in the black and white color of the magpie). The black band signaled that they were breeding adults.
I was excited by the prospect of eventually photographing a nest on the floating aquatic plants growing in the protected area where the grebes gathered when not fishing. Visions of fuzzy little chicks riding on their parent’s backs formed in my mind’s eye. Alas, it was not to be. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
Pied-billed grebes are shy, so you may not have even noticed them paddling alone, or perhaps floating discretely together like bookends. They just sort of blend in with all the noisy activity of our more demonstrative water birds, like geese, ducks, herons, egrets, and American coots.
Unlike birds that forage on both water and land, the grebe is uniquely optimized for life on the water. The Latin genus for the Grebe family of birds means, descriptively, “feet at the buttocks.” The legs are positioned so far back on its anatomy that, with the agility of a yoga master, it can flop one lobbed foot over to the opposite side of its back. Humorously, an early English nickname for grebes is “Arsefoot.”
Pied-billed grebes also have the ability to disappear, quietly and without a ripple, right before your very eyes. Instead of diving or flying away when disturbed, they trap water in their feathers and simply submerge like a submarine.
Hoping to photograph a nesting pair, I spent a lot of time observing their routines this winter. They began their day fishing. Swimming underwater for their next meal, they would invariably come up with a fish in a relatively short time. Early to mid-morning was for fishing; the rest of the day was time for grooming and chilling out in the more secluded area where I first discovered them.
By late January, circumstances had evolved: it seemed that the grebes took longer to catch a fish. Come February, the fish they caught looked bigger; they were harder to swallow. One grebe even let a fish go after repeated efforts to swallow the catch failed. They foraged in greater expanses of the lake.
Behavior towards one another also changed. When smaller fish were plentiful, there was no competition for food. Everyone was friendly and went about their business. As it took longer to catch a meal, however, a grebe with a fish would turn and quickly paddle away from any bird that approached it.
Good paddlers, pied-billed grebes don’t fly across the water unnecessarily: too great an expenditure of energy. By chance, I observed one grebe with a frog in its bill go airborne, making the effort to fly a couple hundred feet away from a companion that was quickly approaching. I suspected that one of those birds was hungry and wanted another grebe’s catch.
Come mid-February, there remained only two grebes. They were seldom together, and spent more of the day fishing, often from morning into the late afternoon.
The last week of February, I could find only one grebe, this one without a black band on its bill.
On March 1, there were none. Thus ended my dream of photographing a nesting pair of pied-billed grebes with chicks.
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Robert Groos is a published photographer and keen observer of nature who lives in Yosemite Lakes Park. He shares some of his outstanding images of our local feathered friends along with some tidbits of interesting facts about each. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.
Hunchback of YLP: The black-crowned night heron
The secret world of the phainopepla
The turkey vulture