Now What?


If you’ve ever felt as though you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, you might feel some kinship with this pied-billed grebe, who seems to have caught more than it can swallow.

Field guides note that grebes consume aquatic insects, crustaceans, leeches,  tadpoles, mollusks, and ‘small’ fish, but when this grebe popped up in front of me, fish firmly clenched in its bill, I was surprised by the fish’s size: it looked more suited to a heron than a grebe.

On the other hand, the fish wasn’t struggling to get away, perhaps because the grebe already had begun the process of repeatedly pinching the fish with its strong bill, killing it by damaging its internal organs.

What happened next I can’t say, since after only a few seconds the grebe spotted me and dove beneath the surface of the water. I never saw it again, and presume it surfaced in the midst of some nearby reeds, where it could continue dining in peace.


Comments always are welcome.

80 thoughts on “Now What?

  1. It is amazing what they can get down. Sometimes it seems the equivalent to us eating a watermelon whole! Great shot by the way. It is always rewarding to photograph the birds going about the business of making a living,

    1. If I have the time when I visit this refuge, I’ll make a double loop around the ponds. The first time I make note of any flowers or plants I’d like to photograph, but I wait until the second trip to put on my macro lens.

      The first time around, I always leave my 70-300mm lens attached, for occasions just like this. I still was in the car, and had just enough time to lower the window and raise the camera — but it was time enough. It wasn’t until I saw the image that I was sure of what I’d seen, but it turned out to be a real treat — for me, as well as for the grebe!

    1. Theoretically, I suppose a grebe could pull a fish apart into pieces, but it surely would take place in water rather than on land. The birds barely can walk; their feet are placed so far back on their bodies that they’d just tip over. They do fly, but once they’ve found a congenial bit of water, they spend their lives there, even creating floating nests on top of the water.

      A terrific bird photographer, Ron Dudley, was lucky enough to document a western grebe trying to deal with land, and the poor bird wasn’t very successful.

        1. Great minds, and all that. Look at this little snippet from my draft files, dated last October. I’ve got a note in the draft that ‘egregious’ comes from a Latin word whose root means “flock,” as in a flock of birds. The entire word means ‘standing out from the flock.’ This little grebe certainly did stand out.

          Funny, too, that ‘egregious’ turned from being a positive to a negative word over time.

          1. The root in egregious is the same one that’s in gregarious, congregate, and segregate

            Semantic drift is a fact of linguistic life. Another positive-to-negative example is awful, the original sense of which is revealed in the spelling aweful, i.e. ‘full of awe.’

    1. I’ve seen a couple of pied-billed grebes with minnow-sized fish, and even clams, but this was really surprising. On the other hand, I once watched a gull down a fish about this size. I didn’t think he’d be able to, but in the end — after about a half-hour of trying — he got it done. I suspect this grebe managed it, too. After snagging such a great meal, who’d want to give it up?

    1. Grebes are secretive little birds at best, so it was even more special to catch this one with his dinner in his bill. I wonder how long a meal like that would satisfy him? I presume he wouldn’t have to eat again for a while. Then again, how many of us have said, “I’m not going to eat for a week” after Thanksgiving dinner? You know how long that lasts!

  2. What always amazes me is that birds seem to know that they must swallow the fish down head first. Guess because of the way the ribs of the fish orient…but I’ve never seen it any other way and I’ve seen birds toss a fish up so that it flips to go down head first. Your little grebe seems in the know on this issue.

    1. I’ve read that the head-first routine is to keep the fins and scales from damaging the bird’s throat as the fish goes down. I haven’t been able to find a nice, succinct article focused on the issue, but I recall reading on a fishing blog that the fins on a fish lay down toward the back, so that makes sense.

      There’s a collection of wonderful photos of birds eating fish here. About two-thirds of the way down the page, there’s a great photo of another grebe with a large fish. Apparently they’re equipped to deal with them!

  3. Indeed!! Great photo, Linda — once again, you were in the right spot at the right time to capture something many folks wouldn’t see otherwise. I imagine this particular bird enjoyed his Thanksgiving Day meal early!

    1. I’m beginning to think every spot is the right spot — we just have to hang around long enough to see what’s going to happen next. I’ll admit it’s great fun to come across things I’ve seen in photos, but never imagined I’d see myself, and the surprise factor makes it even better. I certainly didn’t get up on this morning and say to myself, “Well, I think I’ll go find a bird swallowing a fish today”!

    1. Speaking of gluttons, I just had the strangest thought. You don’t suppose that wood stork you encountered in the grocery store parking lot had tired of catching fish for himself and was looking for a handout? There’s a great blue heron who hangs around the guys fishing the surf on the west end of Galveston Island. He’s learned that if he’s just patient enough, someone will flip him a fish — easy pickings!

      1. With the lack of wetlands and empty ground around here, I did suspect that’s why he was there. Unfortunately, nothing I had purchased could be opened up for him.

        1. Not a thing, though when I think about the Thanksgiving day menu, I’ll confess sushi isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It’s hard to turn those leftovers into sandwiches and soup.

  4. An interesting photo, Linda. Hope it’s well dead. I certainly wouldn’t want it swimming around in my belly. Reminds me of water snakes in my youth and their incredible ability to swallow large frogs, which they did alive! –Curt

    1. Your comment made me curious, so I went looking. It seems that any fish a bird swallows doesn’t swim for long — a combination of constriction, digestive juices, and other factors takes care of that. But in the process of trying to find some information, I found a serendipitous bit about a strange, diet-related grebe habit: feather eating.

      First, I came across this from Stanford:

      “Perhaps because the idea of swallowing hair is so unpleasant to us, it is difficult to believe the stories of birds deliberately eating their feathers. Nonetheless, some do and they do so regularly. Grebes, for example, consume their feathers by the hundreds. Feathers taken from parents are found in the stomachs of chicks only a few days old. Fifty percent of the stomach contents of a Horned or Pied-billed Grebe may be feathers. This odd behavior seems to have a purpose.”

      “The action of the gizzard in these primarily fish-eating birds is insufficient to crush the bones that are swallowed. The feather balls are thought to protect the stomach by padding the sharp fish bones and slowing down the process of digestion so that the bones dissolve rather than pass into the intestine.”

      Ron Dudley has some photos and more information about feather-eating grebes here. What a world!

    1. One of the best bits of advice I picked up early on was that a car can serve as an admirable bird blind. Some birds will tolerate human presence, but I’ve found many of them skittish, and given to diving or moving away at the slightest provocation. The car helps to even things out a bit, at least with the birds. The alligators don’t care.

    1. Truthfully, Gerard, I think the fish already was fried — metaphorically, at least. The grebes are tough little birds, with heavy-duty bills that can inflict some damage on their prey. Not only that, they’ll sometimes go after their rivals underwater, biting their feet and causing an uproar. It’s amusing to watch a little group of them suddenly explode into watery chaos, with birds scattering in every direction.

    1. The pied-bill grebe is the one I’m most familiar with, and it’s a delightful bird. Their reticent nature makes photographing them a challenge, but in this case, the bird’s divided attention (shall I flee the car? or shall I concentrate on this fish?) gave me the extra seconds I needed to snap its photo.

  5. I have to say that I’ve had that feeling more frequently of late since half my mouth is out of commission following the extraction of a molar and subsequent bone grafting in preparation for an implant. The upshot is I’ve been forced to chew right-handed. Old habits die hard, and I’ve had to constantly remind myself that as far as chewing goes, I’m at half capacity at the moment. However, — let’s face it — there are times when, in the immortal words of Mae West, ‘Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

    1. Having recovered from my own dental adventures, I can sympathize with yours. I do think our little grebe probably would understand Mae west’s point of view. The quotation reminds me of another favorite — Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s oft-repeated invitation: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” The Quote Investigator has an interesting entry about the saying, including the fact that it was first embroidered on a pillow.

  6. A lovely photo and I enjoyed reading about the grebe’s feather eating ways and the difficulty it has with walking. And even though this grebe’s mouth was full to overflowing, it obviously wasn’t keen to share any of it with you or anyone else!

    1. Since this morning, I’ve found a terrific video showing a western grebe walking on a beach. No less a person than David Sibley is quoted at the end, saying (paraphrased) “In my guide to birds, I said they couldn’t. Well, at least one gave it a try.”

      Birds will share food when courting or nurturing their young, but I don’t think much sharing goes on among the grebes. They eat so many different creatures, I suspect there’s always something around. I read that in the wetlands of Manitoba, where there aren’t any fish, they subsist on tiger salamanders.

    1. It seems this isn’t so much out of the ordinary. Their jaws may not be hinged, but I read that their bills and jaws are strong enough to capture and crush fairly large prey — as this one obviously did.

  7. As I can see both blue water through the apex of its bill sections and the fish’s gills, I’m thinking it may either need to give it up or just keep working until things are softened enough up to git ‘er down the hatch, lol…

    1. I don’t think there’s a chance in the world that bird was going to give up. I did learn today that they’re capable of crushing even large prey with their strong bills and jaws, and it sure looks like that’s exactly what this one was up to.

    1. I think so, too. He’d been up against the bank, mostly hidden by grasses and other plants, and he didn’t know I was there until he cruised a little farther out into open water. Of course, I didn’t know he was there, either, so we were even.

  8. The title reminds me of a news item recently, about a man having a close encounter with a crocodile. I’ll try to find it later and send the link.
    You can add this shot to your growing list of great shots of creatures going about their business. I’ll call this Bird edacious.

    1. Close encounters of the crocodile kind aren’t to be hoped for. I’m assuming the fellow survived, but I’ll look forward to the account. As for the grebes:

      With appetites clearly voracious,
      the grebes’ habits do tend toward edacious.
      A clam or a crab
      is quite easily grabbed,
      but those big, lovely fish are bodacious.

  9. This might sound a tad morbid but as much as I hate to see animals being killed — even for food (which hasn’t stopped me from eating) — I am fascinated with watching waterbirds fish and how they handle their catch, which is often too large or too unwieldy for an easy down the hatch. This is a terrific photo and you were lucky to be in exactly the right place at the right time!

    1. You’ve had such good luck getting photos of Harry (and the others) on their fishing expeditions, and it’s pretty common to see the big birds fishing around here. Sometimes they’re successful, and sometimes not. This was more unusual, and it was pure luck for sure: lucky that I had the right lens on, lucky that the settings were almost right, and lucky that I wasn’t looking the other direction when the grebe passed by!

    1. Thanks, Derrick. It’s always fun to see a creature that seems to have outperformed even its own expectations, and I had a feeling that this one just might have done so.

  10. What a great moment you caught. I remember the grebes I saw. They always looked so cute and innocent. Suddenly I would see them with a prey that’s as big as their size and I naively questioned their ability to handle it, although I later read that some spear and mince fish with ease. They are extremely adept underwater.

  11. I suppose one advantage of Mr. Grebe having such a big dinner was giving you more time to capture the shot. With a minnow it’d have been grab and swallow before the car window was half down. Nice shot just the same.

    Interesting about the grebe eating its feathers. I’d have never thought of that.

    1. I’m chuckling at that. I’ve seen these birds slurp down little fish or other small prey just like a kid sucking down spaghetti, and you’re exactly right: it happens quickly.

      I’d never heard of the feather-eating. That surprised me. Every time I see a bird with its bill hidden away in its feathers, I assume that it’s preening, and simply tossing away any feathers that come loose. Clearly, I’ve been under-informed!

    1. Which isn’t to say we don’t give it a try now and then. On the other hand, there are a lot of optimistic creatures out there willing to take on big challenges — I grew up with this song about a few of them!

    1. I’m often surprised by creatures who seem determined to take on prey much larger than they are. I’ve even seen dragonflies munching on insects as large as they are. I suppose some misjudge from time to time, but most of them seem to know exactly what they can tackle, and have the equipment to get it down.

      The grebes are delightful birds. There are plenty of attractive birds, but they’re just cute — like chickadees, or wrens.

    1. It surprised me to know that you have these grebes, although of course it shouldn’t. We share enough species that it makes sense they would be there, too. The cuteness factor is pretty high with these, and they are great fun to watch, especially since predicting the spot where they’ll emerge after a dive can be iffy, at best. I never would have predicted this large catch, though — and I don’t think the bird expected to have to deal with an observer when he surfaced.

    1. Every time I look at this silly bird, I smile. Some photos are worth having just for the value as a reminder of what the world’s up to while we’re not looking!

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