The Peter Pan of the Pond

One out-of-focus but very special pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

Nothing brings a smile like the sight of pied-billed grebes bobbing and diving their way through our ponds and wetlands. Small, skittish and shy,  they seem to be everywhere and nowhere at once: floating on the water, bobbing for vegetation, and fleeing at the first sign of human presence. They’re divers and swimmers, not flyers; not once in all my years of watching them had I seen one take flight.

When I noticed this one in middle of a Brazoria Refuge pond,  it seemed typically grebe-like in its behavior, until something strange began to happen. As I watched, it appeared to grow smaller, drawing into itself until only half its original size. Its feathers, no longer smooth, began to ruffle, and its wings seemed to flutter above its back.

Before I could readjust my camera’s settings for a clearer photo, the grebe suddenly raised itself, stretched out, and began running along the suface of the water like a coot attempting to gain altitude. In fact, that’s precisely what the grebe was doing: gaining altitude, and beginning to fly.

I’d always known grebes could fly, but I’d never seen it happen. Neither had Mia McPherson, until she witnessed flying grebes at her local Utah pond in February, 2017, and posted photos on her blog. As she described it in On the Wing Photography :

Pied-billed Grebes only migrate during the night, which is why until yesterday I have never photographed them in flight. I’ve even written a post here on On The Wing Photography bemoaning the fact that I would never photograph them in flight. I was wrong, delightfully wrong.
Yesterday afternoon I was at my local pond where I photographed not one but two Pied-billed Grebes in flight. This is rarely seen and rarely photographed. I might never get the chance again. 

After admiring Mia’s photos and envying her experience, I left a brief comment, wondering as I did if I ever would have the same opportunity. I didn’t think so, until January 5 of this year when, like an ecstatic Peter Pan, this grebe took flight.

Like Mia, I might never be granted such a sight again, but I’ll be watching our grebes much more closely in the future. They’re not as predictable as I thought.

I can fly!


Comments always are welcome.

52 thoughts on “The Peter Pan of the Pond

    1. You can imagine my surprise when I realized he was taking wing. I didn’t ‘find’ this as much as I witnessed it, but I surely was lucky that I had my camera set with a shutter speed that was at least somewhat able to capture the event.

  1. Wow. Like most folks, I have never seen a Pied-billed Grebe fly and I don’t think I have ever seen photos of one flying. I’m glad you were able to both see and document this relatively rare occurrence. I’ll definitely keep a close eye on the grebes that I see with a hope that one of them will also decide to turn into Peter Pan (or even Tinkerbelle).

    1. I hope you do get a chance to see one flying, Mike. I got to see a group of coots flying once, very early in the morning, but they were so high that my camera couldn’t capture a decent image. All you can see from the photo is that they are, in fact, coots. One of these days, I’d love to have better images of both birds in flight.

    1. As he putt-putted along the pond, I wasn’t sure he was going to actually take off. But he did, and my initial puzzlement turned into pleasure — especially when I realized I might have a photo worth sharing.

  2. Linda, I just had to see the Pied-billed Grebe you that photographed flying! Your description of the grebe’s behavior matches what the grebes I photographed in flight did before they lifted off. I am so tickled that you got to see and photograph this!

    1. I’m glad you confirmed that odd bit of behavior before take-off, Mia. I wasn’t really thinking while I was watching, but if I could have put my impression into words, it would have been something like, “What’s with the incredible shrinking bird?” Last year, I discovered one nesting pied-billed grebe in this same pond. Who knows what delights I’ll find this year?

  3. Pied-billed Grebe is common here spring through fall and is seldom seen to fly except during the couple of weeks before they migrate around late October. Then they seem to take “practice” flights over the lake in preparation for the long flight ahead of them, rather in the manner of a runner doing a couple of laps around the track. They have bred every year for many years on a lake not even ten minutes from my house.

    1. We have grebes throughout the year, and I have been lucky enough to see them nesting. In her posts, Mia mentioned that hers were doing a lot of wing-flapping, and she hypothesized that they might have been preparing for migration.It makes sense, as does the idea of practice flights.

      I always watch for coots either coming or going, too, but even though it’s clear when they’re flocking up in preparation for migration, they’re stealthy beyond belief. One day they’re here, and the next day they aren’t: or vice-versa. I read once that they’re so awkward in flight that they travel only at night, out of embarrassment. Clearly, there are other reasons, but that one’s an amusing hypothesis.

    1. Many of them — perhaps most — are the result of heeding Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for living a life”:

      “Pay attention.
      Be astonished.
      Tell about it.”

    1. Sometimes, documentation is exactly what’s called for. It’s easy to fuss over photos of flowers; they’re not going anywhere. And even your ponies and Nugget are reasonably easy to capture. In those cases, if a photo comes out poorly, there’s always another chance. I’m not betting on any more chances for a flying grebe.

  4. the bird in the first picture looks like a youngster, a different bird altogether than the one in the last picture which I know they are. excellent shot of the grebe in flight.

    1. Isn’t that difference something? I’ve seen birds make themselves look larger by fluffing their feathers, but I’ve never seen one seem to shrink. But, it’s the same bird. It was interesting that Mia said in her comment that she observed the same behavior in the grebes she saw fly, just before they took off.

    1. When I looked at the photos on the computer, even though I knew it was the same bird in all three, I still checked, just because. Sure enough, the timestamp on all three photos is the same: 10:26 a.m. I took all three photos from the same spot, too, so it really was the bird’s behavior that made the difference: scrunching up in order to stretch out and fly.

  5. I think your images are sharp and well framed. I had also heard about how some of the grebes were not able to fly. The one in the Caribbean was also considered non-flying, but in the end I think it did the same as this one, it migrated at nighttime when nobody saw it. Some birds also have a low flight capability, such as the Indian peacocks here. These have spread all over Florida and it’s because they do fly, contrary to popular belief.

    I also enjoy Ron Dudley’s bird photography:
    I thinks he’s really skilled with his 500mm lens and shoots flying birds using ‘Continuous Drive’ mode. I believe he also uses s tripod most of the time, unlike Mia who shoots handheld.

      1. Yes, I’ve read that — and I designed one of Mia’s noodles for myself. It’s absolutely true that a car makes a great mobile blind. It can be frustrating to follow someone who doesn’t know that little trick. I’ve often watched a fantastic collection of birds scatter to the winds when someone stops and gets out of their car to get a ‘close-up’ of the birds with their phone. But, it’s their refuge, too, and I never would fuss at them. I just grumble to myself!

    1. Since our grebes are year-round residents, nesting and raising their young in local ponds, it may be that they don’t have to fly quite so much.Even if they have to look for a different place to live — in a drought that empties the ponds, for example — they don’t have far to go. I suppose someone has studied their flight habits, but it’s enough for now to know that they really can fly.

      I’ve followed both Ron and Mia for some time. I enjoy their photography, and have learned a good bit about birds’ behaviors from them. Of course I envy those big lenses, but I’ll have to content myself with my 300mm. The trick with a smaller lens is to persuade the birds to come closer!

  6. Wow! I’ve never seen them fly either.

    They’re so small and for me, always so far away, they’re almost impossible to photograph in sharp focus. Just once I’d like them to be at the edge of the pond, lake or waterway – close to where I’m standing.

    1. They do have a tendency to stay a good distance away, don’t they? At the refuges close to me, there are some canals and ditches where they like to hang out, but it’s almost impossible to get decent photos. They’re very close to the road, but the water’s usually muddy, there’s a lot of shade, and I have to shoot into the sun. Most of the time, I don’t even try; I just wait for them to show up elsewhere.

  7. Anything that flies has my admiration. I envy creatures of flight and my most common dream is that I too can fly but not others. I am sure psychologists would nod their heads and say; ‘there is a lot there that needs resolving, Gerard.’

    1. Well, if you have things that need resolving, so does our friend Curt. He mentioned to me in a comment somewhere that he often dreams of flying. He asked me if I do, and I had to say no — no flying for me. When I dream that I’m traveling, I’m usually knocking around the country in some rattle-trap, rusted out truck with a hole in the bed and questionable tires, and I usually end up off the road and in the middle of an unrecognizable pasture/desert/whatever. If you wouldn’t mind flying over from time to time, you could tell me where I am!

  8. The little grebe looks like a baby in the photo. It’s plumage appears to be almost down like. What a contrast to have it suddenly take flight. I suppose it was almost a shock to see a grebe fly. I have seen then fly but it was a rarity. I do wish that I had the desire and drive to go on field trips again but alas the mind is willing but the body and the curiosity of wanting to find birds just is not with me anymore. I pretty much enjoy birding by sound for about the past 15 years. So I can live vicariously by viewing your blog and going to Google to view great photos of the birds.

    1. It does look downy, doesn’t it? That’s what a good fluff to the feathers will do. I didn’t think much at all when it took off; I was too busy trying to get a photo of it. A minute later, it registered what I’d seen, and you can believe I was surprised — not to mention eager to get home to see if I had anything worth keeping in the photo department.

      If you enjoy watching birds, and listening to them, the Cornell site has links to a number of live cams. I like the Feeder watch cam especially, but I just discovered they’ve added a West Texas cam. There’s a link to all the live cams at the top of that page. At night, the FeederCam sometimes shows the flying squirrels coming to feed; that’s pretty interesting. Sometimes, when the birds were active, I’d turn on the cam and keep it in the background, just to listen to the birds. In my new place, I’m beginning to see a few birds, so I may be able to listen to my own.

  9. I think I saw one many years ago at a distance floating off the coast of Acadia N.P. Sometimes a less than perfect shot is perfectly fine when it’s an only chance. I had a similar reaction to my moose shot last year. Who knows when another opportunity will arise.How wonderful that you had this one.

    1. A less than perfect shot’s certainly better than no shot at all. Ron Dudley posted today about seeing a bobcat perfectly perched on a rock only feet from his vehicle. Unfortunately, he was going 75 mph on I-80 at the time, and that cat in the median missed out on its photoshoot. We all hope it made it to the other side of the highway without incident. Ron’s still moaning about his missed opportunity.

      I have learned to use continuous shooting when I’m around birds. I ended up with about thirty images of this one, and I was lucky to have a couple of decent ones. If I’d had the camera set at 1/1000 instead of 1/800, they would have been better. The dark marks in the water are grasses sticking up; the water was relatively shallow there.

      1. Continuous shooting is a very popular way to obtain images and although the subject may be moving the rapid fire usually gets a few sharp frames. It’s a funny sound in the wild.
        I searched and found Ron Dudley’s blog, commented and followed. Yup, missed opportunities are disappointing.

        1. He and Mia often go out shooting together. It’s really interesting to see the same subjects on their blogs, portrayed differently, and to read their different accounts of the day.

  10. In that first photo, this looks like a baby bird. I’m delighted your patience paid off so you could bring us this wonderful story. Love the idea of this grebe racing across the water, almost as if he was gaining both speed and courage, for the flight ahead. You know, Linda, even the water in these pictures presents an artistic background!

    1. I’m always pleased when I find birds close by in the ponds, because the water there tends to be prettier than in the canals and sloughs that wind through the refuge. It’s funny how much smaller the bird looks in the first photo, but think about a runner crouched at the starting line. When the starting gun goes off, that scrunched-up person suddenly looks much longer and leaner when he or she begins to run.

      I’ve wondered recently what caused this one to fly. That’s one of those unsolvable mysteries, I suppose. I’m just glad I was there to see it.

  11. The swimming grebe and the flying grebe don’t even look like the same bird. The swimming grebe looks like a chick. OK. I’ll do it. Good grebe!

    1. That brought a for-real, out-loud laugh. Dare I say it was an egrebgious pun? It does look like different birds in the photo, but it most assuredly is the same. Apparently the grebe had to gather itself together before making its dash into the air. It was an amazing sight, and it really intrigued me that Mia saw the same behavior before her birds took flight.

    1. I didn’t realize you’d worked with grebes. I don’t think that’s been recent; at least, I don’t remember reading about them since I’ve begun following your blog, and I think I’d have remembered. Ducks, yes. And of course the pigeons and dear Peanut. Have you heard how she’s getting on? Is she still around?

      It was a marvelous experience, seeing this grebe fly. All these birds seem to have tricks up their wings!

    1. Isn’t that just the truth! I’ve been sitting here trying to remember if I’ve ever seen a chicken fly, and I’m not sure I have. I went looking to see if they can fly, and the answer seems to be, “Well, yes. Theoretically.” It seems to depend on how heavy the breed is, and how strong their wings. Even so, a few feet of elevation for a distance of about ten feet seems to be usual.

      All that said, it was an amazing experience to see this grebe lift off. It was the last thing I expected to see.

    1. It certainly was a fun event to witness. They are Illinois residents; they’re year-round in the southern half of the state (or a little more) and they breed throughout. Here’s the Cornell map. Just for kicks, I looked at the iNaturalist observations, and it seems as though they’ve been seen in your general area. You can click on any of the orange boxes for more detail.

  12. The pre-flight behavior is fascinating – I thought the photo was of a chick! We used to enjoy seeing them on a pond where we used to live. They nested there reliably for some years but I’m not sure they’re there anymore – the town is growing and the park gets busier and busier. What luck that you had your camera, and the presence of mind to make these photos!

    1. It is amazing how they can scrunch up, isn’t it? Even though I knew it was the same bird, I still checked the time stamp on the photos, just to be sure. And,yes: every photo showed the same minute, with only a bit of variation in seconds. As for luck, the real luck is that I’d set a higher shutter speed. If I’d expected a bird to fly, I’d have chosen even higher, but 1/800 did well enough.

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