BIRD WATCH: Pied-billed grebes are small masters of camouflage

THE NEAREST LAKE or pond usually offers the opportunity to see a common bird, but a secretive one.

Pied-billed grebes are among the smallest members in the grebe family but they range over a wider portion of the country than others members in this group.

They’re not only small but masters of camouflage.

Keep an eye on the vegetation lining a pond or lake and you stand a good chance of spotting the resident pied-billed grebe.

They’re often seen as one solitary bird but further looking might turn up a bird’s mate.

Unlike other grebes, this one has a funny-looking bill.

It isn’t narrow and pointy like the bills on other grebes. Some field guides describe it as chicken-like.

It’s short, rather thick and turns downward at the tip.

While this unassuming bird glides in and out among the reeds, looking as if it hasn’t a care in the world, it can suddenly disappear and hide from an assumed threat.

All grebes are wonderful divers.

They spend a good part of their time diving and fishing for food.

They have a way of giving a little jump off the water followed by a quick dive.

The pied-billed has a great submerge tactic when avoiding predators. It can regulate its buoyancy.

Thomas Gilbert Pearson (1873-1943), early conservationist, ornithologist and founder of the National Audubon Society, wrote about this bird and its diving prowess.

“It is a more accomplished swimmer than any duck of which I have knowledge, for it possesses the wonderful faculty of lowering its body in the water to any desired stage of submersion, and this it can do either while swimming or while remaining stationary, as may suit its fancy,” Pearson wrote.

”At times only the bill and eyes will appear above the surface, and in this attitude it can remain …”

This impressive disappearance act is undoubtedly responsible for one of the bird’s nicknames, “water-witch.”

The pied-bill and other grebes share an equally descriptive nickname that emphasizes their diving skill.

“Hell-diver” has been applied to these birds for decades.

Pied-billed grebes are crafty and careful when feeding and they’re equally cunning during nesting season.

This small bird is not only prey for eagles but smaller hunters are also a threat.

Snakes, frogs, muskrats and even large fish will dine on this grebe.

Like all wild creatures, survival is always uppermost in their minds.

When a pied-billed grebe leaves its nest it covers it with the nearest bunch of water-soaked weeds and rotting vegetation.

The nest of this bird is actually a floating platform, tossed together with whatever is available in its world of water.

An average clutch of eggs numbers six but higher counts have been known.

The eggs are food to predators and the nest is beautifully camouflaged.

It is easily missed and ignored even though the would-be hunter passes close by what looks like a jumble of floating sticks.

Newly-hatched pied-bills are interesting little bundles of fluff and their downy plumage is startling black and white stripes over their entire body.

They have a small orange patch on the back of their heads.

As they mature they will acquire the plain grayish-brown body similar to the adults but their fledgling stripes remain on their head and neck.

This is the time of the year when the drab adults are changing into their breeding plumage.

Their bodies remain plain but they acquire a black throat patch and a dark ring around their pale bill.

This is a good time to check the nearest pond or lake and get a glimpse of the “water-witch.”


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected]

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