The Western Grebe is a magnificent bird with large stature. They are very closely related to Clark’s Grebes both in appearance and behavior. In fact, for almost 100 years these birds were considered to be of the same species, with Clark’s Grebes being considered as white morphs of this species.
About Western Grebes
By around 1986, evidence was found to prove that these birds belong to two different species. So, there’s a lot of mixture of information about these birds because they were studied as the same species for such a long period.
Although both these birds closely resemble each other, and their ranges often overlap interbreeding is not very common. If interbreeding is observed, it’s probably due to there being an absence of mates from their species. Therefore, interbreeding usually occurs when individuals stray away from their range or habitat.
Both these birds are known for their extremely energetic and elaborate courtship rituals. During these displays, these birds perform a series of mechanical sequences that are very complex in nature. Not many other birds perform such complex sequences.
Western Grebes are also very important to developers, scientists, and tourists. These magnificent birds attract tourists to wildlife parks and refuges. Hence, they’ve become a big contributor to the money these parks earn by selling tickets.
Western Grebes are still very widely prevalent throughout their range, but their numbers might become a cause of concern as their habitats are being taken destroyed due to development. The fact that these birds are still thriving makes them a very interesting species to study.
● Western Grebes Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Western Grebes Size, Eating behavior, Habitat
● Western Grebes Range and Migration, Nesting
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Western Grebe Color Pattern
Most of the upper body of Western Grebes is blackish. This includes scapulars, upper wing covert, tertials, back, napes, and crown. Their lesser coverts and scapular coverts are mostly white at the base or in the middle, and the edges of their mantle, lower necks, scapular coverts are gray.
Most primary and secondary feathers are grayish with some amount of white coloration on them. Their crowns are darker gray or black than their facial area. Western Grebe’s throat, chin, and the rest of the underparts are completely white. Their sides have gray or blackish spotting.
Juveniles look similar to males except that their faces and back are lighter in color. Therefore, the contrast between their upper and lower body is not as prominent. By the end of November, Juveniles molt into the formative plumage.
The formative plumage is also similar to the plumage of the adults except that some parts of their body are still lighter in color.
During the breeding season, adults look much brighter and glossier. Their crown and head feathers are replaced by more vibrant feathers. The sides of their crown feathers are slightly longer, and their loral region is darker.
Description and Identification
These large birds are often confused with Clark’s Grebes. In the case of appearance, they can be differentiated from Clark’s Grebes by their yellow green bill, and the lack of abundance of white in their wings and flanks. The black of their crown also extends below their eyes.
The lower portion of their tarsi and toes is black, the upper surface of their tarsi is yellow-orange, or yellow-green. In juveniles, the upper surface of their legs is usually olive green.
The irises of adults are dark red, they have a small yellow ring around their pupils. Hatchlings lack the intense scarlet coloration of irises, instead, their pupils are dark gray or black. Gradually, the irides of the juveniles turn pale gray, and then eventually to the color of the adults.
You can also identify them by their vocalizations which are most common during the early morning and late afternoon.
Western Grebe Song
Western Grebes have a wide vocal array that serves a number of purposes. When Western Grebes are alone and searching for a mate, or when an individual from the pair is separated from their significant other, they make an advertising call. This call is a harsh, rolling “cree-creet”. Every individual has a distinct manner of making this call, and generally, females make it in a slightly higher pitch than males.
Younglings use the advertising call to find their parents, and in certain other contexts when these birds can’t find each other. The number or the bouts of calls change after these birds find a pair. While nesting, birds have an individual response to the calls of their mates.
The ratchet call is another call of theirs, in which a loud, harsh trill sound is alternately vocalized by two birds who are face-to-face in a ratchet pointing display.
A consistent “tuk-tuk-tuk” is their threat call, which is generally to protect the nest. Males also make this call when they are establishing their nesting colony. If the presence of fish or other prey is limited in feeding areas, Western Grebes make this call to drive away their competition.
Male Western Grebes feed their mates right before the onset of the egg-laying period. Females beg for this food by making a “tuk-a” vocalization. The “tuk” portion of this call is exactly the same as the “tuk” notes vocalized during the threat call.
During copulation, Western Grebes perform a district copulation duet. Males do most of the vocalizing during this duet. They begin with a loud trilling sound, which has some interspersed notes of the females. When these birds are reverse mounting, the vocal roles are reversed.
These common calls should give birdwatcher’s enough information to identify these birds, but they also use 4 other calls during courtship displays. Barge trilling, tick-pointing, neck-stretch trilling, arch-clucking calls are these 4 other calls. During feeding, parent Western Grebes also make ticking alarm calls and clucking food calls.
Western Grebe Size
Western Grebes are the biggest Grebes in North America. Their length can vary between 22-30 inches. They weigh between 1.8-4.4 pounds and their wingspan is approximately 31-40 inches.
The size of Western Grebes also varies according to their geographical range. The populations in U.S and Canada are significantly larger than the populations in the Mexican Plateau. Western Grebes also display sexual dimorphism with the females being smaller than the males.
Western Grebe Behavior
It is very hard to notice Western Grebes flying because they have very little need for flight. These birds are migratory, but they only migrate during nighttime. These birds have awkward movements at their nests and their feet are located far back in their body, giving them a slightly peculiar appearance.
Western Grebes are also very rarely on land, unless they are making a stopover during a storm while migrating. Land provides them sufficient protection from storms but otherwise doesn’t serve any other purpose.
Although these birds seem awkward otherwise, they are a spectacular sight to behold during their courtship ceremonies. Not many other birds are capable of such elaborate, complex, and precise courtship displays. These birds have two main displays during courtship.
The first display begins with an advertising call, and then ratchet-pointing occurs in water. During this display, Western Grebes immerse themselves in water and raise their crest while making a ratchet-like call.
Following ratchet-pointing, these birds dip the entirety of their heads in the water, and then raise up and shake away the water from their bodies. The next portion of their courtship display is the most magnificent and stunning courtship behavior.
Both sexes get up onto their feet and stand side by side. Simultaneously, they run long distances on the surface of the water with their wings pointing towards the sky. Their necks are curved, and they are vigorously patting with their strong feet. This display looks almost like a bird ballet.
All this is just part of the first display. They also have another complex display, “the weed ceremony” which occurs during the nesting period after they form their pair bond. Both males and females are territorial, and they aggressively protect their nests.
Western Grebe Diet
Western Grebes are carnivorous birds that mostly sustain on fish. Almost all of their foraging is in the water. Western Grebes frequently peer into the water, search for prey, or look out for potential predators. Most of the prey they catch are underwater. Apart from fish they also eat polychaete worms and crustaceans.
They use their spearing mechanism to catch some small deep-bodied fish. They rapidly extend their necks and catch fish that are close to them.
Otherwise, fish are carefully caught by using the forceps-like action of their mandibles. If the food items are small, Western Grebes generally eat them underwater. If the food items are particularly large they bring them to the surface. These large items are then pinched repeatedly in their bill before being swallowed whole.
Females are more involved in foraging when raising their young ones, and males put more effort into foraging when their young ones become slightly bigger.
Western Grebe Habitat
Western Grebes need large areas of open water to reside in. This is especially important as these birds perform most of their activities in water, and they are rarely on land. These birds are mostly in freshwater lakes with emergent vegetation, and sometimes they inhabit tidewater marshes. Western Grebes breed in regions that have several square miles of open water. They form large colonies in extensive lake systems.
Range and Migration
The range of Western Grebes extends from Canada to California, and sometimes you can find these birds in Mexico. They generally occur in western states and the great plains. Rarely, these birds can also be in the eastern portion of the U.S.
Western Grebes are nocturnal migrators which mostly travel in flocks. Otherwise, these birds are quite anti-social, but while migrating they form loose flocks. After breeding, these birds travel towards a molting site following which they travel towards their wintering grounds. They usually travel towards their breeding grounds between April and May.
Western Grebe Lifecycle
Western Grebes are monogamous birds that begin breeding after they are at least one year old. Females lay an average of 4 eggs per clutch, and they generally only raise one brood per year. Sometimes, they can also raise more than one brood. The second brood attempt is when the first brood fails.
Their eggs are bluish-white in color, and their length is between 2.2-2.4 inches. On average, these eggs need to incubate for 24 days, after which nestlings with silvery or blackish down are born.
Western Grebes live for long periods in the wild, hence their population is thriving. The longest living male Western Grebe was 14 years old, and the female was 11 years old.
Mostly Western Grebes die due to the loss of nests and eggs during storms. Nestlings are often mistakenly trampled on by adults. Predation by large Gulls is also common.
Western Grebes construct their nests on the borders of the water bodies they reside in. These borders have emergent vegetation such as reeds, rushes, or pondweeds. They usually don’t nest in regions which has water depth that is higher than 1 foot, as this would make these nests prone to flooding.
Both sexes construct the nest together. As males are larger, they are responsible for gathering larger materials such as stems and stalks, and females usually bring wet material to bind the nest together. The nest is anchored to vegetation to protect it from winds and flooding. Nests can be about 2-3 feet in diameter.
Anatomy of a Western Grebe
Western Grebes are large birds with triangular crests. They have long necks, narrow bodies, and slender, long, and sharp bills. You can tell the sexes apart by their bill sizes. Females have significantly shorter and thinner bills.
Western Grebes are very special birds, that have a very striking appearance. With their long neck and bright red irides, these birds are truly a sight to behold. Birdwatchers who might get the opportunity to witness their elaborate courtship displays would be extremely lucky.
Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes
At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.
- Kids Bird Watching Monthly Subscription$10.00 / month
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Bird Watching Binoculars for IdentifyingWestern Grebes
The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Western Grebes are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.
Western Grebe Stickers
Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Western Grebe. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.
Bird Feeders ForWestern Grebes
There are many types of bird feeders. Here are our favorite bird feeders for your backyard. We use all of these bird feeders currently. Kids will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. Using this collection of bird feeders will provide a wide variety and many types of birds.
Bird HousesForWestern Grebes
There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.