Grebes among the world’s most aquatic of waterfowl

10:19 am | November 28, 2011

It’s not often that birds — most of which enjoy the power of flight — get themselves stranded, but that was most certainly the case for a small species of waterfowl that lost its way over Limestone Cove in Unicoi County.

Photo by Bryan Stevens - James Lance holds the Pied-billed Grebe prior to releasing it on a small pond. He discovered the grebe on Thursday night under his porch in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County. Grebes will often make a hard landing, especially during heavy rain, by mistaking ground or asphalt for water.

Limestone Cove residents James and Karen Lance found a Pied-billed Grebe on Thursday, Nov. 10, after dark under the porch of their home. They’re not sure how the bird got there. Their barking dogs alerted them to the presence of the bird.

I speculated that the grebe might have made a hard landing, mistaking the ground for water. The Lances had narrowed down the bird’s identity to grebe or coot. When James showed up on Saturday morning with the bird in a cardboard box, I immediately recognized it as a Pied-billed Grebe.

We released the small grebe on the fish pond at my home on Saturday, Nov. 12. The bird instantly began swimming. Later, the bird also did some diving. From time to time, the bird also flapped its wings over its back and fluffed up its feathers. We also saw the grebe take several drinks of water. After maybe 15 minutes, the bird retired to a muddy strip along the edge of the pond to bask in the sun and preen its feathers. As far as I can tell, the bird didn’t have any obvious injuries.

Photo by Bryan Stevens - After being released, the Pied-billed Grebe swam around the fish pond. The bird drank a lot of water, but didn’t seem distressed in any other way. A few days later, in advance of an approaching storm front, the grebe departed to continue its migration.

The bird spent several days on the pond, sometimes associating with the resident Mallards. The ducks didn’t know what to make of the eager grebe, which probably felt more secure in the company of some fellow waterfowl.

After recuperating, the grebe departed on Tuesday, Nov. 15. It left on a rainy day, probably in advance of the approaching weather front. I am hopeful that it continued its migration in an uneventful manner after that bizarre interruption of landing in the Lances’ yard.

The Pied-billed Grebe is the most widespread of North American grebes, finding a home on any open water source of fresh water, such as ponds, marshes, lakes and rivers. This grebe generally avoids salt water.

The scientific name of the Pied-billed Grebe helps explain why these birds avoid life on land. The Pied-billed Grebe is known scientifically as Podilymbus podiceps, which roughly translates as “feet at the rump.” The bird’s webbed feet are placed far at the back of the body. Such a design is fantastic for swimming, making the grebes quite masterful above and below the water’s surface.

Photo by Bryan Stevens - After being released, the Pied-billed Grebe swam around the fish pond. The bird drank a lot of water, but didn’t seem distressed in any other way. A few days later, in advance of an approaching storm front, the grebe departed to continue its migration.

However, for this amazing adaptation, the grebes have also paid a price. They are very clumsy on land, although they can, with difficulty, walk on land. Their method of walking is so laborious, however, that they prefer to never stray too far onto land. This limitations also prevents the Pied-billed Grebe from gaining enough speed to take flight from land. Any grebe that crash-lands far from water is probably doomed. Thankfully, the Lances found the Pied-billed Grebe at their home before any harm befell it.

When at home on the water, the Pied-billed Grebe is fond of diving and traveling surprising distances before re-surfacing. This seemingly magical ability has inspired a variety of folk names for this bird, including dabchick, devil-diver, dive-dapper, hell-diver, and water witch.

The Pied-billed Grebe is small, stocky and in comparison with some of its relatives, rather short-necked. This grebe is 12 to 15 inches in length and weighs between 10 and 20 ounces. The Pied-billed Grebe is usually brown or gray in color with a small patch of white feathers toward the rump. It has a short, blunt bill, which in summer is encircled by a broad black band — the “pied,” or multi-colored, feature that gives the bird its common name. It is the only grebe that does not show a white wing patch when in flight. There are no visible differences between male and female Pied-billed Grebes.

The Pied-billed Grebe breeds as far north as south-central Canada and throughout the United States, Central America, the Caribbean and even into South America.

This grebe feeds mainly on aquatic insects, crustaceans, small fish and tadpoles. Pied-billed Grebes have been documented eating their own feathers, which experts explain is a practice that aids the bird in digesting fish bones and other items that could conceivably cause injuries.

During my recent vacation in South Carolina, I saw numerous Pied-billed Grebes. Other species of waterfowl were less common, but I did observe such ducks as Northern Pintail, Mallard, Black Duck and Blue-winged Teal.


Marie Rice, a resident of Flag Pond in Unicoi County, sent me an email with a photo on Nov. 17.

In her email, she explained that a water bird showed up on her pond at daylight.

“It’s been here all day,” she noted. “It has red eyes, a sharp beak and dives a lot, especially if it’s scared.”

She noted that the bird had a white underbody with a gray cape with black behind its head and down the back of its neck.

“Can you tell me what it is?” Marie asked.

Thanks to her photo, I was able to confirm the identification of Marie’s visitor as a Horned Grebe.

The weather front that came through the region on Thursday, Nov. 17, prompted a massive bailout of waterfowl on lakes and rivers in the region. No doubt, that same front also convinced the Horned Grebe to ride out the storm on the Rices’ pond in Flag Pond.

The fallout of waterfowl in the region on Nov. 17, 2011, reached historic proportions with a few dozen birders reporting from various lakes, including Watauga, South Holston and Boone.

From Boone Lake came such reports of 1,198 Ring-necked Ducks, 300 Greater Scaup, 2,600 Lesser Scaup, 300 Redhead and 11 other species of ducks as well as 500 Horned Grebes. Other waterfowl included Common Loons, Pied-billed Grebes and Double-crested Cormorants.

From South Holston Lake came reports of 58 Green-winged Teal, 1,165 Ring-necked Ducks, 2,190 Lesser Scaup, 3 Surf Scoters, 5,550 American Coots, 57 Horned Grebes and 208 Ruddy Ducks.

Closer to home on Wilbur Lake came reports of 45 Red-breasted Mergansers, 19 Lesser Scaup and 10 Horned Grebes. On Watauga Lake, reports included 24 Ruddy Ducks, more than 200 American Coots and two large rafts of ducks numbering more than 1,000 individuals of such species as Redhead, Scaup, Ringed-necked Duck and Bufflehead.

This is only a sampling of the waterfowl found that day. For those who could get out into the field and see this amazing but short-lived spectacle, it was quite a memorable day for birding in Northeast Tennessee.


Worldwide, there are 22 species of grebes. This family also includes three extinct species — Alaotra Grebe, Atitlán Grebe and Colombian Grebe.

These birds range in size from the Least Grebe, which weighs only about six ounces, to the Great Grebe, which can tip the scales at four pounds.

Other North American grebes include Red-necked Grebe, Eared Grebe, Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe.

During visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006, I observed the sleek, long-necked Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe. On my 2006 trip to Utah, I visited Antelope Island State Park and observed tens of thousands of Eared Grebes gathered on the Great Salt Lake for the nesting season.

The grebes most often found in Northeast Tennessee are Pied-billed Grebe and Horned Grebe. In addition, a small number of Eared Grebes have wintered on South Holston Lake in Sullivan County for many years. The Red-necked Grebe is an uncommon winter visitor to the region. I’ve observed this Grebe on Boone Lake and South Holston Lake.

The Horned Grebe is a drab bird during the winter months, but undergoes a total transformation in the spring. Adults in breeding plumage are unmistakable in summer with a black head with brown tufts of feathers along the sides of its face. The neck is a deep red at that time of the year, and a very noticeable feature are the scarlet eyes. This grebe has a small, straight black bill tipped with white that is quite unlike the blunt bill of the Pied-billed Grebe.

The Horned Grebe ranges across Europe and Asia as well as the United States and much of Canada. In Europe, this bird is known by the name Slavonian Grebe.

The Horned Grebe winters along North American coastlines as well as large lakes in the southern United States. A few of these grebes can often be found during the winter months on Watauga Lake.


To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or send email to or I’m also on Facebook.

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