Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Getting the Heeby Jeeby Grebeeees

The last thirty days of birding have been loaded with Grebes. It all started with a pair of charming Least Grebes down at Lake Pena Blanca in mid February, 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. Since then, I've had the pleasure of seeing it and all six other North American Grebe species. I cannot say I was 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 has been loaded with these slender swimmers. Phoenix area birders have been very fortunate to see Eared Grebes, 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 last week: 

The Western Grebes are the most visible of the Tempe waterfowl. 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, though they are still thrilling to observe.

The single Red-Necked Grebe has been the big attraction in Tempe town lake. 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.

As luck would have it, the sightings were occurring just 5 minutes away from where I pick up Maria after work. With the exception of the bolder American Coots, the birds all stayed well away from the pedestrian bridge over Tempe's grand canal. The prospect of picking the Red-Necked out of 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, and this made the surveillance area 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 anyway...

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

Now that I had some great views of the Red-Necked Grebe, 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 were disappointed to find out that is was actually a small, man-made pond surrounded by houses in a little master-planned community. We were expecting a more rustic seen with lots of marsh and riparian birds, but this was just the 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 listservs, but for the last several days I had not been paying attention. It was a great surprise then 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 the 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. 

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