Nature Notes: Grebes

Four species of grebe can be found in the region. Have you ever watched grebes dive? 

When the grebe is in no hurry, it can execute a beautiful arching dive, as if it were standing on a platform just under the surface of the water. When alarmed it can “duck” under quickly. Or, if it be¬lieves danger is not imminent, it can merely sink, which has the advan¬tage of not leaving a ripple.  This maneuver is accomplished by expel¬ling the air from its air sacs, compressing its feathers, holding its wings tightly against its body, and giving a vigorous upward kick with its feet. It may then swim with its neck projecting like a periscope or sometimes with only its head and bill above water.

The grebe is said by most observers to swim below water with its wings against his body, and it was so photographed by the National Geographic, pursuing minnows in a glass tank. Yet Audubon described his captive “Piedbill” as swimming in a large wooden tub by using its wings as well as its feet.  Various times of submergence and distan¬ces traveled under water have been quoted. Eleven seconds seems to be a good average. It is too easy to be looking in the wrong place when the bird surfaces and it can resubmerge immediately. However, when it is out in the middle of a pond it generally feels safe and contents himself with swimming a little farther away.

For swimming, the grebe has lobes of skin on each toe, which offer little resistance to the water on the forward recovery, but spread wide on the backward stroke of its muscular leg.  Although the grebe’s foot resembles that of the coot, the latter walks on the shore well and frequently, whereas the grebe does not come out of the water even to sleep, except to crawl on the nest. its lack of walking ability is the result of his legs being set far back.

Four kinds of grebes nest in the region. The Eared Grebe, restric¬ted to the western half of the U.S., is usually seen each month.  But it is practically absent from the middle of June to the middle of July, and may be missed in the middle of winter. 

The Pied-billed Grebe is of a different genus, and can be distinguished by its chicken bill, white patch under the tail, and dark eyes. The dark ring around the bill, which gives the bird his name, is not conspicuous in winter. 

The Eared Grebe has a sharp slender bill and red eyes; in breeding plumage it has a crest and golden ear tufts. The name “grebe” is derived from the Breton word’ for comb, or crest.

The Western Grebe and Clark’s Grebe are much larger birds with a heavy sharp beak like that of a heron. The only difference between the two species is how far the black on its head comes down past the eye. They nest at Balmorhea Lake in Reeves  County, Texas and other larger impoundments.

Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas.

This episode was written by Burr Williams, Executive director of the Sibley Nature Center.  Visit sibleynaturecenter.org and join Williams’ Facebook page where photos are posted daily. 

Nature Notes is produced by the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and Marfa Public Radio and is sponsored by the Meadows Foundation and the Dixon Water Foundation. Tune in to Nature Notes on KRTS-93.5 FM on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:35 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. and again on Thursdays at 7:06 p.m. Visit us online atnaturenotesradio.org.