The western grebe was once considered the same species as the nearly identical Clark's grebe, but today they are recognized as distinct species. Western grebes are more common and have a more extensive range than their Clark's grebe cousins.
Western Grebe, Swan Grebe
- Bill: Long, straight, olive green
- Size: 25-26 inches long with 35-inch wingspan, long neck
- Colors: Black, white, gray, olive, red
- Markings: Genders are similar with a white face and a black cap that terminates just below the red eye and contrasts with the white cheek. The throat and neck are white and contrast with the black hindneck. The body is blackish overall with dark gray sides and flanks, with a very short tail. The bill is an olive green that may show gray edges.
Fish, amphibians, aquatic insects, crustaceans
Habitat and Migration:
Western grebes can be found on large, open areas of freshwater or saltwater including marshes, reservoirs, bays and lakes. Summer populations extend as far north as southern central Canada, east to western Minnesota, west to Idaho and eastern Oregon and south to Nevada, Utah and Colorado. In winter, western grebes migrate to the Pacific Coast from British Columbia to Baja California, with isolated winter populations found in western Texas and eastern New Mexico. Year round populations can be found in central California and Mexico, as well as along the California-Arizona border and in eastern New Mexico.
Western grebes can be very vocal, particularly in large flocks. The most common call is a screechy, rattling "kree-eek" with two distinct syllables that can be heard year-round. During the breeding season, high-pitched whistles can also be heard.
Thanks to legs set far back on the body and fleshy lobed toes, the western grebe is a powerful swimmer and diver but is awkward on land. While fishing, these birds use their strong bills in a swift spear thrust to hunt, and they will eat not only fish but also other aquatic animals and insects. Young grebes ride on their parents' backs and stay in position even during feeding dives. When threatened, Western grebes prefer to dive rather than take flight.
These monogamous birds engage in some of the most elaborate courtship behaviors of any birds, including a synchronous "rushing" dance and exchanging weeds. A mated pair will build a floating nest and both parents will incubate the 2-6 eggs for 23-24 days. The precocial chicks climb onto their parents' backs soon after hatching and are cared for by both parents for 63-70 days until their first flight. Western grebes raise one brood annually.
Attracting Western Grebes:
Western grebes are not backyard birds but they can be seen regularly in the appropriate habitat. Interested birders should avoid polluted waters without adequate fish or other aquatic food sources. When viewing these grebes, a spotting scope or high powered binoculars are useful in distinguishing them from Clark's grebes at a distance.
- Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii)
- Red-Necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)
- Red-Throated Loon (Gavia stellata)
Photo – Western Grebe © Jerry Kirkhart