An unusual visitor: the pied-billed grebe

Nov. 20, 2012
by Doug Reeves, assistant chief, DNR Wildlife Division

pie-billed grebeThe "V" wake alerted me to an approaching creature. It had come around a small island and was headed in my general direction. It was about 80 yards out, and clearly it was a small creature. My curiosity was piqued. A muskrat? Mink? Teal? Intently I watched the approaching "V" and eventually I began to see the body that was making the wake. The rain had stopped only about 20 minutes earlier, and the dark clouds refused to let much light onto this part of the world. Even now, as sunrise should be evident, it was a gray world so I could not use color as a clue to identification.

Soon I realized the creature was a waterbird of some sort. When it was about 40 yards out, I could tell from the shape that it was a pied-billed grebe. Some people might have mistaken it as a kind of small duck. The grebe approached the lone Canada goose decoy I had placed in the open water in front of me. I watched intently to see what this diminutive bird would do when it arrived at the decoy. When only about six or seven yards away from the fake goose, the grebe seemed to realize that this was not a real bird and that something was amiss. It stretched its neck, first sideways to the right, then as high as it could stretch. It started around the decoy, then turned quickly around and swam behind it again in an arc, closing to less than five yards away but clearly wary.

Finally the grebe dove. I had half expected to see it just sink below the surface. That sight never ceases to amaze me. Pied-billed grebes, unlike most other bird species, have the unique ability to just sink below the surface of the water and set nearly motionless with just their head sticking out. Many times there is not even a telltale ripple left to indicate that the thing sticking out of the water is anything more than a partially submerged stick. Then, almost as if the water has swallowed them up, they just disappear below the surface completely and pop up somewhere else. This one dove instead and popped up on the other side of the decoy. It then swam on, apparently unconcerned about the encounter with the decoy, finally going out of sight about 100 yards further down the marsh. I didn't think any more of it until a great-blue heron flew in and landed somewhere near the grebe. I heard the patter of feet on water and looked as the little waterbird skittered my way, then skidded to a stop and dove again about 60 yards off.

This kind of experience is shared by few Michigan residents because you have to walk out into a marsh to see it. Pied-billed grebes nest in marshes and ponds throughout Michigan and are also regular migrants during both spring and fall as many head further north to nest. They feed on small fish and other aquatic animal life. Their nests are small piles of detritus from the bottom of the marsh they are living in. They are not dry like most bird nests, but rather, seem always damp. Somehow that seems fitting for a bird that is rarely found away from water.

In my case, I was waterfowl hunting. I had waded through the mud and vegetation, over and around submersed logs in water that was at one point ankle-deep and at another nearly at the top of my waders. Most people won't go through that to see marsh life. Yet, a trip to a nearby state game area pond or marsh along a roadway or trail may provide a similar experience with far less strenuous exercise. A wonderful time for such a visit is spring, when birds are fully colored, in their "breeding plumage" as they do their courtship displays. You might want to make a visit to one of these places with your binoculars on a nice spring morning next year. Perhaps you will encounter the same grebe I saw.

Learn more about the pied-billed grebe.

Learn more about Michigan's waterfowl and wetlands.

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