Grebes aren’t a big family in the bird world, with only 22 species worldwide, but they can be a confusing bunch nevertheless.
As bird families go, North Dakota is grebe rich, with six species, almost a third of the global total. Minnesota shares the distinction, with the same number of grebe species.
And, yes, local grebes do present identification challenges.
Grebes are on my mind this week because I’m just back from a birding excursion in the Turtle Mountains, where I visited Lake Metigoshe State Park, Willow Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the International Peace Garden.
Grebes are found throughout our area, but they are less common in the Red River Valley, because the valley doesn’t offer habitat that suits them, and grebes are fairly particular about their living space. The Turtle Mountains, with forested, freshwater lakes, appeals more to some species than to others. The same is true of the big water wetlands that occur in the grassland areas of the state, and of small wetlands and even road ditches.
The grebes are diving birds, pursuing prey underwater. They build nests on the water, using logs or mudflats as anchors, and even sometimes allowing the nests to float on mats of reeds. Some species are known for their elaborate courtship rituals.
Perhaps the best approach to grebes is to take them in pairs. Clark’s and Western grebes are very similar – so much so that they long were considered a single species. Horned and eared grebes are similar, too, but a quick, close look will reveal the difference between them. The remaining pairs are not at all alike – they might be considered as outliers.
One of these is an iconic bird of the Turtle Mountains, and thus the bird of the week.
The second, pied-billed grebe, is perhaps the most widespread of the grebes in our area and thus most likely to be seen.
Starting with the red-necked grebe then:
This is a Holarctic bird – meaning it is found across the Northern Hemisphere. Our area is near the southern edge of its breeding range. Although it occurs in tree-lined wetlands in much of the eastern half of North Dakota and northern Minnesota, it is nearly ubiquitous in the Turtle Mountains, a forested highland studded with fish-filled lakes. Almost every one of these seemed to have a nesting pair of red-necked grebes when we visited last week.
The red-necked grebe is among the larger grebes, the size of one of the smaller species of ducks, say, the blue-winged teal. It can be told at a glance from any duck, however, because its bill is long and pointed, rather spear-like; actually, the crown of its head is angular rather than rounded, as a duck’s is, and its neck is noticeably longer than a duck’s neck.
Importantly, the neck is red, clinching the identity of the bird.
Pied-billed, the other “outlier” among the area’s six grebe species, is the smallest of the group likely to be found here. Unlike the other grebes, neither its neck nor its bill seems out of proportion to its body, giving it a more compact look than its cousins. It is unique in its behavior, too; rather than diving, it sinks out of sight. Pied-billed grebes are common on small wetlands throughout the area. It is the grebe most often seen in the Red River Valley.
Two other grebe species also are found on small wetlands ringed with sedges and cattails, and they make up the first of our paired species — the horned and eared grebe. Both are small birds and both have noticeable yellow patches on their cheeks. These lead to the fanciful names for the birds. The better field mark is the neck, however. The eared grebe has a black neck. Europeans sensibly call it “black-necked grebe.”
The second pairing of grebes poses even greater identification problems. These are the western grebe and Clark’s grebe. Both are large grebes – a bit larger and longer even than red-necked grebes. They are strikingly two-toned, black on top and white on the bottom, with long dagger-like bills. The difference is in the facial pattern. In the western grebe, the dark cap extends below the eye; in Clark’s grebe, the eye stands out, because the black cap doesn’t extend so far down the face.
This wouldn’t be enough to separate the species scientifically, but there is another crucial difference. The birds use different vocalizations in their mating rituals and choose mates based on these sounds.
In a way, that’s appropriate for grebes, which can be noisy. This is especially true of the red-necked grebe. Its nattering, rather harsh and fairly loud, woke us in our campsite at Lake Metigoshe State Park. In the International Peace Garden nearby, we heard it at nearly every listening stop that was anywhere close to water – and that means most of the back roads in the garden.