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.

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.

Home, Sweet Nest

Nesting black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Whether calling in flight, searching for food, or patrolling their territory on long, improbable legs, black-necked stilts always bring a smile. Their delicate, even fragile appearance is belied by their preferred habitats: fresh and saline marshes, mudflats, flooded agricultural fields, ponds, and drainage ditches.

During their mating season, which lasts from April through August, they construct ground nests near water, adding sticks, mud, grass, or shells to simple scrapes in the ground.

Both parents incubate three or four tan-colored eggs for 22-26 days; females often incubate by night, while both sexes take turns by day. Because even birds have to cope with the heat, on very hot days the parents will go to the water to wet their belly feathers before returning to the nest to cool the eggs.

After hatching, chicks run, walk, and swim as soon as their down has dried: usually within twenty-four hours. Their parents remove any tell-tale eggshells from the nest, and the chicks begin hiding in the water at night; both actions help to prevent predation by disguising their scent.

Nesting Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Like the stilt, pied-billed grebes forgo trees for nesting purposes, but they prefer water instead of land. Shallow water will do, but depths greater than nine inches are best, since they allow the bird to approach or escape the nest underwater.

Usually found singly or in pairs around ponds and saltwater marshes, pied-billed grebes tend to dive at the slightest provocation, but they also possess the ability to squeeze air from their feathers and sink beneath the water’s surface without leaving so much as a ripple. Once underwater, they can stay submerged for some time,  swimming great distances to the safety of the reeds, or they can remain just below the surface, with only their eyes or nostrils visible.

Their tremendous swimming skills have a downside, of course. Barely able to walk on land, the grebes prefer to dive and swim when they sense danger, instead of flying to escape.

The water that protects them also facilitates construction of their nest platform: a dense mass of plant material that either floats or is anchored to standing vegetation, like the stems of bulrushes and water lilies. Both male and female participate in selecting the site and building the platform and nest, a bowl-like structure four to five inches in diameter and about an inch deep.

Eventually, both also join in incubating four to seven eggs for about twenty-three days, covering the eggs with nest material when they leave to feed. The young are able to swim almost immediately upon hatching, although I was surprised to learn that they sometimes ride on their parents’ backs like loons; adult pied-billed grebes have been known to swim underwater with their chicks on their backs. 

Ground-nesting birds are quite common, of course, but the black-necked stilt and pied-billed grebe are remarkably public about their nesting process. The next time I glimpse a nice, round clump of floating vegetation, or see a stilt just sitting around, I’ll take a closer look. There might be a new family waiting beneath the wings.

 

Comments always are welcome.