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Go (for the) Western, Young Man

December 14, 2009
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When a pair of Western Grebes was reported Sunday evening at a lake in Greensboro I felt a mix of emotions.  One, the opportunity to see these birds in North Carolina is pretty special.  While Western Grebes are a rare, but regular, visitor to the state, most of the sightings are off the coast, which means the odds of a bird sticking around when its got the whole wide Atlantic Ocean to hang around in is slim to none.  Inland records are far more unusual, with these birds consisting of the sixth and seventh inland records for the state, and the first since a long-staying bird in Charlotte back in 2006.  So, that’s the excitement.

However, the birds were reported late Sunday afternoon, the latest possible time to require an entire workweek to pass before I had an opportunity to get out to see them.  That’s six days the birds would have to stick.  For any rarity that’s kind of a lot to ask, but it was the only option for me.  So wait I did, mumbling under my breath at my bad luck and pumping my fist every morning when a bulletin came out on the state listserve with the subject heading “Western Grebes-YES”.

Add to this personal carnival ride the fact that my trusty bird-mobile had the check engine light pop up loud and proud on my dash about mid-week, making a road trip, even one as short as the 50 minute jaunt over to Greensboro, something of a perilous endeavor.  So add it to the list.  Before I was able to make the drive to Greensboro, I’d have to take it in to the dealership, as it happens just about the only place open early on Saturday morning, to get that checked out.

But the birds were cooperative, and Friday they were still being easily observed from the marina on the shores of Lake Brandt.  I was feeling good about my chances, but first my car had to head to the shop and get charged a ridiculous amount of money just to look at the car, which turned out to need a new fuel pump valve, a part that, luckily was under warranty.  So the frst hour and half of prime birding time was spent in a waiting room watching one and a half episodes of Sportcenter, half of which was spent flogging the exceedingly uninteresting Tiger Woods story and the other half showing ads for exercise equipment or giant stickers you can put on your wall.  I consider myself a sports fan, but come on.

Eventually my name was called, my car was mended, and I booked out of there towards Greensboro so fast they may have thought they replaced my busted pump valve with some sort of rocket injector.  When I got to the lake, I was surprisingly the only one there, but it didn’t matter as I quickly found the birds in question associating with a small group of Scaup, Redhead, Canvasback, and a single Ruddy Duck.  Success!

Western Grebes weren’t a lifer for me, I’d seen them before in Wyoming, but this was a much better experience with them so here are some thoughts.  Bird books sort of give the impression that Western Grebes are big birds, and compared to the rest of the Grebes they are I suppose, but their bodies were hardly bigger than the Ruddy Duck they were associating with, and significantly smaller than the other diving ducks around.  When I saw Western Grebes in Wyoming they were not associating with other birds, the opportunity to really get a sense of their relative size was nice.

The birds put on quite a show, actively stretching and feeding and often coming up with fish they appeared as large was six to eight inches or so.  They’re apparently eating well, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they stuck around for the near future.  Discussion on the Carolinabirds listerve has sprung up regarding one of the birds, the left one in the photo below, and whether or not it’s a Clark’s Grebe, a species on the provisional list for the state from a unsubstantiated report off the coast a few years back.

It’s not entirely clear in my photos, but the bird is paler with a much brighter bill, two marks that point tentatively towards Clark’s, but at least suggest the intermediate bird illustrated in the Sibley Guide.  Consensus is that the bird is at most an unidentifiable bird with a few suggestive Clark’s traits, but as mentioned in a Rich Stallcup piece (.pdf) from a Point Reyes publication, “there are troublesome individuals, though, and the careful observer will just have to leave some birds unidentified”.  Fortunately for all involved, one bird is a classic Western so at least we all get to add the species to our state or life list.

If any western readers with more experience with winter Aechmorphorus grebes have an opinion, I’d love to hear it.  Better photos of the birds are available here from the Carolina Bird Club website.

Also of note, this is not more than a few miles away from where Pacific Loon spent a week last winter, and only a town over from North Carolina’s first Tufted Duck at the beginning of this year.  The Triad (Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point) had a really nice run of winter rarities in the last year.  It’s nice to see the trend continue with these really cool birds, and really nice that they stuck around long enough for me to see them!

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7 Comments
  1. December 14, 2009 10:54 am

    Here in Idaho we get both Western and Clark’s Grebes pretty regularly. The Clark’s Grebes generally have a significant amount of white over and in front of the eye. Just do a Google image search of them and you can see what I am talking about. Your photo does show that one Western has more black that goes lower down the face than the other, but I would still call them both Westerns.

  2. December 14, 2009 11:14 am

    Sweet. Nice birds.

  3. Nate permalink*
    December 14, 2009 11:19 am

    @Robert- That’s definitely the consensus among birders here, especially since the Clark’s like characteristics of the one bird seem to change in different weather and light conditions.

    @Patrick- Thanks, they sure are!

  4. December 14, 2009 4:03 pm

    How likely is it that both species would show up at the same time on the same southeastern lake? Great birds, either way.

  5. Nate permalink*
    December 14, 2009 4:56 pm

    @John- Probably pretty unlikely admittedly. But there is a matching set of Western and Clark’s Grebes on a lake in Missouri right now, so it does happen.

  6. December 15, 2009 12:47 am

    Glad to see the Western Grebes hung around long enough for you to observe them. That’s always a concern for me as well. My lifer Western Grebe was not as long a wait. While birding a sewage lagoon on the south side of Lake Ontario (ticked a lifer Eared Grebe there) a very helpful older birder informed me of a Western Grebe on the north side of the lake. He provided the directions as well. 4 grebe species that cold April day. Some were lucky enough to tick 5 species.

    Bob

  7. Nate permalink*
    December 15, 2009 9:33 pm

    @Bob- I had a good day last year where I had a four grebe day with Eared, Horned, Pied-billed, and Red-necked. If there was a nearby Red-necked staked out I might have tried for five that day, but alas, there hasn’t been one yet this year.

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