I made the trip to Spring Hill, Tenn., in February of 2009 with fellow members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society. I travelled with Tom McNeil and Brookie and Jean Potter. Once in Spring Hill, we joined Rob Biller, who had been in Chattanooga and joined us.
We succeeded in observing the owl, which was at the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, far from its usual range in the Arctic tundra.
In the last five years, I have only added a handful of birds to my state list, including Baird’s Sandpiper and American Golden Plover, as well as that aforementioned Snowy Owl. So, the recent addition of Western Grebe to the list marked a nice personal achievement.
Unlike the Snowy Owl, however, the Western Grebe wasn’t a life bird. I saw my first Western Grebes in 2003 and again in 2006 during trips to Salt Lake City, Utah. On those trips to Utah, I also observed the very similar Clark’s Grebe.
The Western Grebe I observed on South Holston Lake in Sullivan County, however, was definitely my first sighting of this bird in the Volunteer State.
Rick Knight was the first person to find the Western Grebe while birding at Musick’s Campground at the lake. He found the bird at 11:05 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 7. He got the news out about his sighting, and birders soon began “flocking” to Musick’s Campground, a well-known destination among the region’s birders.
I wasn’t able to go out and look for the bird immediately. Luckily, the grebe lingered, and I was able to make a trip several days after it’s arrival. Knight also reported seeing two Cave Swallows — proving that lightning can strike twice — at Musick’s Campground at the same time he found the Western Grebe.
Knight, who also compiles bird-sighting statistics for Northeast Tennessee, said the Western Grebe is the first unequivocal record in the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee. A report from 1961, although weak on details, was probably correct. The nearest previous record, from just outside of the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee, was from Cherokee Lake.
Knight said the Cave Swallows represented only the fourth record in the state. All previous sightings came from along the Mississippi River. Knight, in posting about the sightings, wondered if the nor’easter going up the East coast had any influence in bringing the swallows to the area.
So, what exactly is a Western Grebe?
The grebes are an ancient family of birds. There are, at present, 22 species of grebes found worldwide.
The Western Grebe is the largest grebe found in North America. The world’s largest grebe — the Great Grebe — ranges through northwestern Peru, southeastern Brazil and central Chile. The Great Grebe is closer in size to some geese and can tip the scales at 4.4 pounds. The Great Grebe can attain a body length of 32 inches. In contrast, most Western Grebes are about 30 inches in length and weigh about 3.9 pounds.
The smallest of the world’s grebes is, appropriately enough, named Least Grebe. This petite grebe is found from the southwestern United States and Mexico to Chile and Argentina. It is also present on Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean. The Least Grebe is only about 10.5 inches in length and weighs between 4 and 6 ounces.
The summer breed range of the Western Grebe extends as far north as southern central Canada, east to western Minnesota, west to Idaho and eastern Oregon and south to Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Western Grebes often nest in colonies, with hundreds or even thousands on one lake. They build their nests on floating mats of vegetation.
During the winter months, these 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. A Western Grebe making an appearance in any part of land-locked Tennessee is far outside of its normal range.
The Western Grebe, like other grebes, spends almost all its time in water and is very awkward when on land. The legs are located so far back on the body that walking is very difficult.
Although not designed for mobility on land, they are extremely graceful in water. Western Grebes are adept swimmers and divers. They even conduct elaborate courtship rituals on the water, including a display known as “rushing.” This ritual involves two birds that raise their bodies out of the water before launching into an energetic “dance” in perfect synchronicity with each other. This display — which I have only witnessed in video recordings — could make a ballet dancer envious.
Other common names for the Western Grebe include “swan grebe,” “dabchick” and “swan-necked grebe.” I have to admit that “Swan-necked Grebe” would have made a much more descriptive name for this elegant member of the grebe family.
During the winter months, Musick’s Campground at South Holston Lake has become a reliable location for observing Pied-billed Grebes, Horned Grebes and Eared Grebes. In fact, it is one of the few Tennessee locations known for hosting Eared Grebes. Like the Western Grebe, the Eared Grebe is primarily a denizen of the western United States. During a visit to the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 2006, I observed tens of thousands of Eared Grebes.
On a few occasions, Red-necked Grebes have also visited South Holston Lake, as well as other area lakes.
Another unusual bird sighting closer to home involved a Snow Goose found at the Great Lakes pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton. Tom McNeil found the Snow Goose on Friday, Nov. 9, at 2:30 p.m. He posted a message about the bird and, less than an hour later, I visited the pond and succeeded in getting a look at this uncommon visitor to the region.
The 300 Canada Geese at this large pond probably helped persuade this migrating Snow Goose to visit the pond.
Two days later, I visited the pond with my mother and succeeded in helping her gain a look at the goose. We also visited Rasar Farm on the Watauga River in Lynn Valley to look for some birds found earlier that day by Tom McNeil.
We succeeded in getting great looks at the male Northern Pintail, but we didn’t find any of the 75 Horned Larks that McNeil observed a few hours before our visit.
Rare bird sightings may involve common birds that have wandered well outside of their normal range. It’s these unexpected sightings of birds — some rare, some simply far from home — that keep birders motivated and eager for the “next good bird.” In short, the line that divides birders from more casual bird-watchers involves our reactions to rarities.
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