Grebes

Grebes are small to largish diving water birds of the order Podicipediformes.  Three of the world’s 22 species can be found in the Texas Panhandle–Pied-billed, Eared and Horned Grebes.  The Pied-billed is a year round resident and the others are frequent migrants.  In addition, the Western Grebe is an occasional migrant.  I’ve yet to see a Horned Grebe in Hutchinson County but I’ve had numerous occasion to photograph the others.

I rarely see any of them flying; they usually dive to escape danger, but they are migratory.  Bill shapes and sizes vary from the short, chicken-like bill of the Pied-billed Grebe to the long, slender, sharp bills of the Western Grebe.  They have large feet with lobed toes and minimal webbing, and their legs are attached at the very back end of their body, making them excellent swimmers and divers but poor walkers who tend to fall over a lot.  Their plumage is a bland brown except during breeding season when they become quite flamboyant, especially around their heads.  Grebes build floating nests of vegetation and hide it in surrounding vegetation.  They can adjust their buoyancy by pressing their abdominal feathers tighter against their bodies to limit the amount of trapped air and quite often swim along with only their heads and a bit of their neck out of the water.

The most common one I see in Hutchinson County is the Pied-billed Grebe.  They are a somewhat plain looking brown, but in breeding season their bill lightens and gets a dark band around it.Pied-billed Grebe (24) (1280x825)

This one has the band around his bill (although it isn’t completely dark yet and he hasn’t developed the black head that he will later in the season.)  That’s a Lesser Scaup swimming with him.

I also see Eared Grebes around.  Again, they are rather plain in the off season (except for their red eyes) but sprout golden tufts on each side of their head during breeding season.

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I’ve seen Western Grebes twice since I began birding a little over a year ago.  Both times were in the same place at about the same time of year.  Western Grebes are the largest North American Grebe.western-grebe-10-1280x807

Loons aren’t even closely related to grebes, but are members of a completely different order, the Gaviformes.  I bring them up here because of some interesting resemblances they have to grebes.  At one time they were considered much closer relatives based on their shape and the adaptations of their legs and bills.  They have similar shaped bills and their legs are attached to the  very back of their body like the grebes.  This evolution of similar characteristics of unrelated birds is in similar environments is called Parallel Evolution.  Unlike the grebes (and most other birds), Common Loon’s bone are not hollow, an adaptation that might help them dive.

I took these photos of a Common Loon last spring; I’m not sure what this behavior is all about, but it was fun to watch.  He would swim along like this:

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and would then raise up in the water and flap his wings.  He repeated this series several times.  I saw no other loons around.common-loon-46-1280x854

Because of the solid bones, loons have to get a running start on flying.  I’m not sure if it can be accomplished on land.  Once they get airborne they are strong flyers.

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Oh, did I mention their calls? Beautiful.

More photos in the Galleries.

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