By Andrew LaBar
The San Francisco Bay Area is a diverse and vibrant community. Not only is it home to nearly seven million brilliant and unique individuals, but it also supports an equally impressive array of wildlife. From birds to butterflies to cougars to deer, many animals are permanent residents of our bay shorelines and rich watersheds. As humans, we are lucky to live in a place where bird calls can be heard over car horns, where we can spend our Saturdays at a local park, losing track of time as we watch a Great Blue Heron silently stalk its prey. We celebrate these animals for their beauty, for their behavior, for the effect they have on our psyche. The Western Grebe marries all the qualities we celebrate as well as any other bird we can readily spot.
The Western Grebe measures about two-and-a-half feet from beak to tail, making it one of the largest species within the grebe family. It’s an entirely black and white bird with a large, long neck and bright red eyes. The legs of the grebe are far back on their body, resulting in an awkward shoreline run and occasional beak first stumble.
Though upon first glance, the Western Grebe looks nearly identical to the Clark’s Grebe, a few attributes differentiate the two. The Western Grebe has black feathers along its crown and around its eyes, whereas the Clark’s Grebe only has a black crown and white around its eyes. Also, the Western Grebe has a darker yellow-green bill in a straight form, while the Clark’s Grebe has a beak that is upturned and shocking a yellow-orange color. Lastly, if you ever have the pleasure of seeing young grebes riding on the backs of their mothers, the young Western Grebe is grey, but the Clark’s Grebe is white.
Range and Habitat
Most of the Western Grebe population spends its summer breeding season in the inland United States and British Columbia, nesting in heavily-vegetated lakes and ponds. Western Grebes are social and nest in the hundreds. During the winter months, these birds take towards the warmer western coastline as well as along the Rio Grande. In the Bay Area and much of coastal California, a sizable population spends their whole year in the shallow water, including many of our bay shorelines and inland lakes.
The Western Grebe thrives on a diet consisting mostly of small fish and invertebrates. By diving short distances into the water, the grebe plucks its prey out of the depths and quickly gobbles them down. Common food includes carp, herring, insects, crabs and salamanders.
The mating habits of the Western Grebe are where things get truly interesting. Similar to the unusual and extravagant courtship ritual of the New Guinean birds of paradise, the Western Grebe’s habits are fascinating to bird novices and lovers alike. It starts when the pair does a little dance in the water, flexing their necks towards the water in unison. This is soon followed by an amazing display of running across the water, ending in a head first dive. The ritual sometime ends with an even more unusual courtship display, wherein the birds take reeds or plant material into their beaks and begin to rub each other, eventually using the lasting plant material as the first piece of their eventual nest construction. Simply amazing!
Photo credits (top to bottom): Idaho Fish and Game, Eagle Wing Tours, Kent Keller.