Many of us are looking forward to the cooler weather and the migratory birds that the changing seasons bring. Our very own Colorado Lagoon is an excellent resting point for birds. For our first migratory birds of the month, we want to talk about Grebes!
Grebes are duck-sized birds in the order Podicipediformes, but don’t be fooled, they aren’t actually ducks. In fact, unlike ducks, grebes have lobed toes that help them swim and walk through thick mud. These birds have unusual plumage- it is dense and waterproof and the underside feathers stick straight out from the skin with a curl at the tip. Grebes can control their buoyancy in the water by pressing their feathers against their bodies and can swim with only their heads and necks exposed. Grebes are excellent divers and dive for their food. In fact, they will often dive rather than run away from danger!
In the non-breeding season, grebes are plain-colored, with white, brown and/or black feathers. During breeding season, grebes sport distinct head plumage and often develop chestnut colored markings on their heads. Grebes build floating nests on vegetation and they often perform elaborate display rituals. Most grebes breed in freshwater lakes and ponds and some grebes migrate south to spend their non-breeding season with us along the Pacific coast.
Three of our most common grebes here in Long Beach include the Pied-billed grebe, the Western grebe, and the Eared grebe.
The Pied-billed grebe is present in North, South and Central American year round. Pied-bills living in places that freeze migrate south and meet up with non-migratory populations in September and October. They lay up to two sets of eggs a year which are incubated around 23 days. Both parents raise the young, taking turns feeding them and carrying them on their backs. Pied-billed grebes feed on aquatic insects, small fish, and especially love crayfish.
Western grebes breed from British Columbia down to Southern California. They breed in large lakes with high tulle and rushes. These grebes gather in dense colonies. They have the most elaborate breeding displays of the family. With both members of a pair paddling vigorously across the surface of water in an upright posture, necks extended. After breeding season, they winter in saltwater brackish bays and estuaries along the Pacific Coast, like the Colorado Lagoon!
Western grebes dive to spear fish, but also eat salamanders, crayfish, and shellfish. These birds are highly gregarious in all seasons and will usually be spotted in groups. During breeding season, pairs will build floating nests anchored to vegetation in shallow areas of the marsh. The female lays 3-4 eggs, and both parents help incubate them. Once hatched, the young leave the nest and ride on the backs of parents.
These birds breed in vegetated areas of freshwater lakes and migrate to salty waters. They feed at the surface of water or by diving down, and eat aquatic invertebrates, especially shrimp and insects. Courtship includes various elaborate displays by both mates, including swimming in parallel on the surface of the water, with necks extended. Eggs are laid at the edge of water in an open bowl of vegetation. 1-8 eggs are laid, and chicks are able to climb, swim and eat within an hour after hatching.
The Eared grebe has one of the longest flightless periods for a flight capable bird, and will not fly for 9 months out of the year. In fact, this species is known to be one of the most inefficient flyers. Before migration, it doubles up its weight, accumulating great fat deposits while the pectoral muscles shrink to the point of flightlessness. They must fatten up in preparation for a nonstop flight to their wintering grounds in the Southern United States and Mexico. Before they leave for migration, their flight muscles and heart grow quickly while the digestive organs shrink. They are usually the latest to arrive after migration, and only migrate at night.
Eared grebes are easily confused with the Horned grebe, which looks very similar. The Eared grebe has an all black neck, and breeding plumage includes wispy yellow ear tufts. In the winter, the Eared grebe has a darker face with white crescents at its rear. Its bill is thinner and appears slightly upturned. It has a steeper forehead peaking over the eye, and a steeper and more tufted rump.