Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Getting the Heeby Jeeby Grebeeees

Often times you really have to chase after the birds you want to see, but every once in a while it seems like the birds will come to you. And so it was from mid-February to mid-March when, without substantial effort, forethought, or planning, I happened to see all seven of the North American Grebe species, and happened to do it, rather oddly, in Arizona.

It all started with a pair of charming Least Grebes down at Lake Pena Blanca on February 18th, and ended with the unexpected but unmistakable sighting of a Horned Grebe at Sahuarita Lake on March 15th. Prior to the summer of 2011 I had only the Pied-Billed Grebe on my life list. I certainly was not expecting to see all seven Grebes this year (or necessarily ever). I definitely was not expecting to see them all in Arizona.

The Pied-Billed was my first Grebe, so it seems appropriate to start with him (also, its about my only clear Grebe photo).
Although we get plenty of winterfowl in the Phoenix area, we're usually short-changed on Grebe species. But for the last month or so the western-most section of the Tempe Town Lake in southeast Phoenix has been loaded with these slender swimmers. Both local and visiting birders have been very fortunate to see Eared, Clark's, Western, Pied-Billed, and one very unusual Red-Necked Grebe all in the same body of water.

I photo-documented the Eared and Clark's Grebes, albeit quite blearily, as a part of the red-eyed bird alert several weeks ago: 



The Western Grebes are the most visible of the Tempe waterfowl, and it was always a pleasure to observe their elegant, black and white frames cruising along. They seem to be more confident and active, often diving, fishing, and displaying in the later afternoon. It's only appropriate. After all, they are the largest and mightiest of the North American Grebes.


The Least Grebe occupies the other end of the spectrum. They are diminutive both in stature and personality, but in a way this makes them all the more thrilling to observe. Lake Pena Blanca in southeast Arizona is one of the few places in the continental U.S. where one can see a Least Grebe, and is also one of the only sites to boast a nesting pair.


The Least Grebe was a great highlight in the larger southeast AZ birding trip I did with Robert Mortensen and Jeremy Medina. After seeing the Least Grebes and those other expected Grebe species on the Tempe Town Lake, it seemed likely I was all grebed out for a while. It was in the early days of March that the big news came in on the listserv. "Red-Necked Grebe Tempe Town Lake". What!? That's not even close to their normal range. Why would a Red-Necked Grebe stray all the way down to Arizona? Why would it then stop in Tempe of all places? It's one of only a few recorded sightings in the Phoenix area, and for good reason. Look at the bird's range map (courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology). There's really no reason for it to be anywhere near the Sonoran Desert.

The Red-Necked Grebe has been a big attraction at the lake for several weeks now, in part because it's so unusual and because so far no one seems to have gotten any really nice, close-up pictures of the shy bird, at least none that have been reported. Also, it's a grand opportunity to see how far into his breeding plumage this rare visitor will develop before he heads north. Normally I'm not too much of a chaser, but as luck would have it, the sightings were occurring just 5 minutes away from where I pick up my wife Maria after work.

With the exception of the bolder American Coots, the birds on Tempe Lake tend to stay well away from the pedestrian bridge and shoreline. The initial prospect of picking out a Red-Necked Grebe from a mass of distant, folded up waterfowl seemed daunting as first. However, the Red-Necked liked to hang out with the more conspicuous Western Grebes. Since it's pretty easy to get a lock on the Westerns, this made the surveillance area for the Red-Necked more specific. Once the area was narrowed down, the Red Neck's smaller frame decurved bill, and ruddy neck allowed for a straight-forward identification.


Here is by far the rarest bird on Tempe Town Lake. See how he conducts himself with much pomp and circumstance as he...investigates...swamp grass. Perhaps he was sent here from the far north, conducting a southwestern aquatic botany survey for the Society of Scientific Grebes. I've heard crazier migration stories and explanations anyway...


He got his samples and I got a cool new bird, as well as a red neck of my own.


With some great, soul-satisfying views of a Red-Necked Grebe now achieved, I figured my winterfowling was done and my attention moved on to other birds. It was a great bit of luck then that my family and I decided to check out Sahuarita Lake while making a day trip to Tucson. We had done a little birding along the bases of Florida and Madera Canyon and visited one of the large copper mines, and the plan was to check out the reported Sahuarita lake hotspot before heading home in the evening.

We were disappointed to find out that the Sahuarita Lake is actually a small, man-made pond surrounded by houses in a little master-planned community. Not that this is a bad thing in itself, but we were expecting a more rustic seen with lots of marshy reeds, a fetid stink, and some wild riparian birds. By comparison, this was just a standard neighborhood fish pond. The joke was on me though, for there in the center of the little lake, insulated by eight or nine American Coots, was a shy and solitary Horned Grebe. 


Another unusual visitor to Arizona, the Horned Grebe can be told apart from the Eared Grebe by the lack of black on its neck and back of its head. The Horned Grebe made the Arizona birding listserv the week before, but for the last several days I had not been paying attention. It was a great surprise to find this gem and round out my list of North American Grebe species. 

I'm amazed by the birding opportunities offered in urban/suburban environments. Of course, nothing beats hiking out in the wild, and I doubt that Least Grebes will ever turn up within city limits. Nonetheless, I found six out of the seven Grebes in urban ponds or lakes. It has been a great month of birding, one of good accomplishments and great aesthetic satisfaction. 

26 comments:

  1. Laurence, I am Grebe with envy! How fantastic to see all of the North American Grebe species in such a short period of time.

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    1. It was quite unexpected Mia. I never would have thought to see them all in one state either. Hopefully this doesn't mean I've used up all my bird luck for 2012!

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  2. Very wonderful encounters, wow so many and all in your view, very nice indeed!!!

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    1. It was a great combination of luck and circumstance, which is I guess something every birding adventure needs : )

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  3. Awesome! Glad I could join you in seeing that Least Grebe. Pretty amazing to see all seven in such a short time span. Nice work!

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    1. That was a great trip Robert. It was with a slow recognition that I realized how strange and lucky a thing it was to see so many Grebes, especially without really focussing on the group.

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  4. Thanks so much for sharing with us I am like Az is the last place I would have thought of getting all the grebe species

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    1. Here's to that. Grebes and Sonoran desert don't exactly sound like a match made in heaven. Funny thing birds, and fascinating.

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  5. Good stuff Laurence! I thought I might miss the Red-necked Grebe, but finally made it up there to see it on the 18th. It's a great bird for AZ.

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    1. Well done Jeremy! I'm glad it was still around. I was checking a couple days ago and the area had really cleared out, no Ren-Necked or Eared at all, nor any Clark's, and much less waterfowl.

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  6. That's sweet that you pick up your wife from work. You two must be close... like two peas in a Podicipediformes

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  7. Wow Nicholas! You ally-ooped yourself there to slam dunk a super pun!
    Comparing Maria and I to vegetables is not far off. We envy those happy bird homes of purple Martens found down South.

    Cheers!

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    1. Ha! That's what I think every time I view your blog Scott. Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. Fantastic! Grebes galore! How wonderful that you were able to see all seven grebes in such a short amount of time. I've only seen two ... I guess I will have to head west to Arizona to see the other five. Love the photos!

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    1. Thanks Julie. The Red-Necked and Clark's have since left us, so maybe they'll by you next. That being said, I'd still recommend a birding trip to Arizona : )

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  10. Excellent post Laurence! Grebes are such interesting birds!

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  11. Awesome capture of all the Grebes. Great post!

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    1. Thank you Eileen; it's great to share.

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  12. So super to get such wonderful looks at the Grebes, I have only seen 2 myself.

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    1. It's been a lot of fun Dan. You'll just have to make a trip down to ol' AZ I guess, gotta get the Grebes before they get you!

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  13. How very exciting. I just love your posts!! You have such a way with words. I'd love to be able to check one or two more grebes off on my list!! Congratulations. Thanks for such great photos!!

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    1. Thanks KaHolly. As always, you're too kind. Texas might be the one other state where you could find all 7 species too. We'll have to make a birding trip to Brownsville sometime soon!

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  14. Awesome Post Laurence! How jealous I am of you and how happy I am for you! That's quite a feat to accomplish! I have only seen the pied-billed and eared grebes in AZ. I think I need to come back and go birding again!

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    1. Thanks Kathie. Of course, I think you should come back in bird in Phoenix, show me your best birding patches, etc. At least up north y'all have some Loons too, a species I've not once seen.

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