Winging It


While most of us have seen birds splashing in water to find relief during hot weather, other cooling techniques are available to them. Lifting or spreading their wings, allowing the flow of air across unfeathered or less-feathered body parts, also helps to dissipate the heat of summer.

Because I’ve usually been at work and without a camera at hand when I’ve seen great blue herons engaging in the behavior, I was especially pleased to find this pied-billed grebe with raised wings at the Brazoria Wildflife Refuge near the end of July.

Despite their reputation for being a bit skittish and camera-shy, this grebe continued its behavior for nearly fifteen minutes. Raising and lowering its wings in a slow, repetitive pattern allowed body heat to escape, and keeping its wings raised for as much as a minute at a time might have caught a bit of breeze as well.


Comments always are welcome.

48 thoughts on “Winging It

  1. You are correct that grebes in general are alleged to be a little skittish and prone to submerging quickly only to emerge far away, but it has been my experience that once the breeding season is over the birds become far less wary. Our local Pied-billed Grebes are taking “practice” flights across the lake, getting ready for migration no doubt.

    1. There’s definitely movement in the bird world. Reports of incoming teal started here about two weeks ago, and I’m seeing some early mallards. A friend in Minnesota says the coots are beginning to flock up there; it won’t be long until the first one arrives down here. Let the weather gurus say what they will: a coot on the water is our best harbinger of autumn.

      I’ll have to watch more closely, and see if there’s a change in behavior in our grebes. It makes sense that skittishness — and aggressiveness — would begin to ease post-breeding season.

    1. I often have a similar experience — seeing something that would make a wonderful photo, but not having the camera at hand. I don’t have a smartphone, so I suppose I’m more intentional about heading out specifically to take photos. Reasonably enough, I’ve discovered that the more time I spend roaming around in nature, the more I see — and the more fun I have.

    1. It looked to me as though you got even more rain today; I certainly hope so, even though you’re headed back into the heat for a time. I adore these little birds, and this behavior — new to me — seemed especially charming. The fact that it serves a quite practical purpose as well is — well, pure lagniappe.

    1. I think so, too. There weren’t many other birds around, and it seemed perfectly secure, with nothing more on its mind than catching a few rays and a little bit of breeze.

      I left a link to your most recent post on Gary Myers’s blog today. He posted about an artist named Arthur Dove: a New York artist who produced a painting called Fire at the Sauerkraut Factory. Dove was born in Canandaigua and raised in Geneva; Gary mentioned that the area was known for cabbage, and that Phelps was once considered the sauerkraut center of the world. I thought you’d be interested in reading a bit about the big sauerkraut factory fire, and its possible links to Dove’s painting.

      1. Thank you, Linda, I never knew what happened to the factory in Phelps, I think it was long gone before I was born, and maybe the fire explains that. I’ve seen some of Dove’s paintings in the Geneva Historical Society, and liked them. He went to college just up the street. I understand he was a major talent, and hope to see more of his paintings next time I get to Chicago.
        By the way, my father reminded me that one of his grandmothers used to make sauerkraut herself, and there was a family anecdote about the day a big crock of the stuff in the cellar went bad, and blew the lid off – – they heard the lid hit the parlor floor, and went down to find a pretty awful mess to clean up!

  2. I’ve seen this behavior in Great Blues, as your link to Mary’s site exhibits, many times, even here in arctic New England. Although they can be skittish too, most of the time while they are preening or just hanging around they allow for extended observation and picture making. I wonder if during those minutes on a windy day if a pied billed grebe could take off like the Flying Nun. I linked although I am sure you didn’t need an intro to her.

    1. I never in the world would have connected this bird to the Flying Nun, but there it is. I’d thought of paragliders; the grebe’s wings certainly look like the sport’s parachute ‘wings.’

      I’ve noticed that the larger birds seem to be the more easy-going birds. Even medium-sized herons and egrets are a little more amenable to photographers lurking around — having that new lens probably lets you lurk a little more easily.

      1. Ha! Finally some turnabout. Usually I am the one who doesn’t see things. :)

        I have had the opposite observation. Great Blues are very jumpy here. All I do is look at them sometimes and they take off. My best luck has been when they are distant working a pond and if I stay still behind the camera they will often approach.

        Yes, the lens has made it possible to reach where I have not been able but even with that, and the extender, I often have to do some cropping as I did here. I do see a little softness in the images if I pixel peep, but it is performing as I had hoped and added to what I can pursue.

    1. Maybe that’s the avian version of “winging it.” Given the length of time the bird sat around raising and lowering its wings, the technique seemed to be working.

  3. We’ve had an episode of coolth here in the flatlands this week. . It’s been delicious. My AC stays off sometimes for as long as half an hour at a time, which means I can lower my wings!

    1. The thought of coolth is more than appealing. There’s some general grumpiness setting in down here, although the absence of storms is a nice counterbalance. It looks like we’re facing our last truly hot weekend of the year, and then we finally may have some relief. Wings do get tired!

  4. Aw, isn’t nature grand? He looks so happy flapping around like that. Almost makes me want to jump in a pool of refreshing water and flap around, too. Almost, I said — I’m much more comfy on dry land, even if it’s not as cooling, ha!

    1. While he wasn’t exactly flapping in the same way as the bathing heron, he would lower his wings into the water before lifting them again. See the water droplets at the end of that left wing? Water cools, and air cools — when you combine them, it can be more than doubly refreshing, as I’m sure the birdies have figured out.

  5. Fun photo, Linda. I would add, opening their mouths. Recently, I have been noticing that the Stellar Jays always wander around with their mouths open when the temperature climbs up to a hundred. And I’ve seen wild turkeys doing the same thing. –Curt

    1. Our mallards pant a lot. It’s fun to watch them sitting in the shade of marina pilings, panting away. Sometimes they seem to fall asleep, until time passes, the sun moves, and they end up sitting in sunlight rather than shade. Then, they get up, shake themselves, and move with the shadow, plunking down again until the next move’s required. You’d think they’d look for a larger shadow, but I suppose they know what they’re doing.

    1. I’ve seen other birds do that while bathing, although what made this so interesting to me was the fact that there wasn’t any bathing going on. The bird simply was sitting on the water, and then it began to raise and lower its wings, holding them in this position for extended periods of time. That’s when I decided it was exhibiting the kind of spread-the-wings cooling behavior that I’d seen in herons. Now I’m wondering if other birds do it, too. I’ll have to do more watching!

    1. Those are beautiful images, Maria. The bird is exquisite. I know people who’ve seen them on our middle coast, and it’s possible they even could be found in my area, but I haven’t yet. Your comments about vagrancy, and about the grebe’s isolation, were interesting. We always seem to have one or two coots that remain in the marinas here year round; I used to worry about them, too, but they do quite well during the summers, and when the flocks return in the fall, they’re accepted into the group. Who knows why some linger — but they obviously do.

    1. Isn’t it cute? I’ve never seen one engage in such interesting behavior, and I was pleased to get the photo. It won’t be long now until our over-wintering flocks arrive, and I’m really looking forward to that. The teal are here already, right on schedule.

    1. I’d seen the great blue herons and egrets spread their wings to the side, but I didn’t know other species did it. Since these cuties spend most of their time sitting on the water, ‘up’ is better than ‘out’ for them.

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