Foam Lake Birding No. 53

No. 53
When most people see a bunch of birds swimming in a slough, they tend to think of them collectively as ducks, or geese if they are larger. However, not everything that swims is a duck or a goose. There are coots, phalaropes, loons, gulls, terns, mergansers, scoters and grebes. At a distance all look somewhat “duckish”, but at close range or with binoculars the distinctions are quite discernible.
This week I shall deal with the family of swimming birds known as grebes. Grebes are not related to any other group of birds, but most closely resemble loons in appearance and habits. Like coots but unlike ducks or loons, a grebe’s foot is lobed but not webbed; like loons but unlike ducks or coots, a grebe’s legs are so far back that the bird cannot walk on land because it is front heavy; like coots, loons and diving ducks but unlike dabbling ducks or geese, a grebe’s nest is a floating platform anchored to a rush or reed; like loons but unlike all other waterfowl, the young must be fed by the parents; like loons, coots and geese but unlike ducks, male and female grebes are the same.
A grebe’s food source is animal in nature and includes items such as fish, tadpoles and aquatic insects. Like all waterfowl a grebe’s young can swim shortly after hatching, but since most of their food items are found underwater the young must be fed by their parents because they do not have the ability to chase and catch their prey by themselves. With one exception, all grebes have sharp pointed beaks with which to catch and hold live prey.
There are four species of grebes in the area, three of which are common. The larger grebes require larger bodies of water and the smaller ones smaller bodies of water. This week’s featured grebe, the Pied Billed, is one of our smallest grebes and least like the other members of its family. While most grebes have sharp pointed beaks, the Pied Billed has a much blunter and higher one giving it a big nosed appearance. It also has the unique ability to gradually sink out of sight without leaving a ripple on the surface of the water. Moreover, it can hold a submerged position with only its head above water. These characteristics have earned the Pied Billed Grebe the nicknames of Water Witch and Hell Diver. Both names are very appropriate.
The young of all grebes have striped heads with light and dark lines running longitudinally from front to back. The young of the Pied Billeds are completely striped from to back and look like little floating zebras. Although they can and do swim they do not seem very enthusiastic about it when they are very young, so they spend a great deal of time riding on their mother’s back. When the mother dives, as she must, the young are left floating, and when the mother comes back up, they quickly scramble onto her back. As the young mature they gradually become more independent until they leave their parents completely and get ready for migration.
As with all water birds in northern zones, Pied Billed Grebes have to migrate, but are only moderately migratory flying only as far as the nearest open water. Some do fly as far south as Mexico. In Canada, they are year round residents only in coastal areas of British Columbia. This week’s photo was taken last year along the Dunlop Road just north of town. Being as common as they are, they should not be difficult to spot.