Pied-Billed Grebes Nesting at Green Lake
Photos ©Gayle Garman.
GREBES NESTING HERE
by Gayle Garman
The pied-billed grebe is the smallest water bird at Green
Lake; 13 inches long versus 23 inches for the more common mallard. Several
grebe pairs are nesting on the Lake this summer; and there also are some
immature, non-breeding birds. Pied-billed grebes can be identified by
their downy white butt and lack of typical tail feathers. Mature adults
have a pale beak with a dark vertical stripe.
The male and female both collect decaying aquatic vegetation to build
the floating nest, which is surrounded by water for protection from rats,
cats, racoons, dogs, and fisherman on the shore. Usually the nest is hidden
in a near-shore willow thicket, or under overhanging vegetation. (photographed
by Gayle Garman.)
The adults take turns incubating the eggs, which they cover with vegetation
when they are both off the nest. There usually are 3-5 eggs, incubated
for about 23 to 27 days (Birds of Washington State, Brian H. Bell and
Gregory Kennedy, 2006). The chicks swim soon after hatching. They are
lured into the water by the adults offering a small fish, their favorite
food. A few days after hatching the chicks will spend most of the day
on the water, being fed by both parents, but will return to the nest at
night for a week or longer.
The pictures (left top to bottom) show a pied-billed grebe on a nest built
on lily pads, tending her almost ready to hatch 21-day-old eggs, the first
baby grebe with some of the other not-yet-hatched eggs , and another grebe
parent feeding a baby bird.
Grebes are truly aquatic birds that catch their food by rapid, agile swimming
underwater, propelled by feet which are set far back on their body. In
fact, they can hardly stand, and never walk on land, because their feet
are so far back on their body that they cannot stay upright. They can
control their buoyancy by compressing their feathers, so may be seen swimming
with only their head above water, or slowly sinking beneath the surface
without leaving even a ripple. Sometimes the chicks will ride on the back
of an adult, even as the adult swims underwater. Like all grebes, they
eat their own feathers, and the adults feed feathers to the young, to
help rid their digestive tract of fish bones. Many pied-billed grebes
stay at Green Lake over the winter because the lake provides good shelter,
lots of small fish for food, and seldom freezes.
The pied-billed grebe is the most widely distributed grebe in the New
World, and is found on marshes, ponds, small lakes and estuaries all over
north America, however, populations are reported to be declining because
of loss of habitat (Lives of North American Birds, Kenn Kaufman, 1996).
You can contact Gayle by sending email to Friends of Green Lake.