Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A Strange Visitor From Afar

The Horned Grebe is a rather unique creature. For the most part, they breed on freshwater lakes and marshes from Canada’s Prairie Provinces northwest to Alaska and, come fall, nearly the entire population moves to the coast. They migrate nocturnally and after reaching their wintering grounds, they seldom fly.  So it was more than a bit of a surprise and a real treat to find a Horned Grebe cavorting and diving for small fish in our flooded backyard after the Tonawanda Creek spilled its banks a couple of winters ago

There are numerous species of grebes but the Horned Grebe is thought to be tamer than the rest, allowing a closer approach by humans. This fellow didn’t seem to mind our presence one bit, allowing Claudia to take a number of photos while he swam about non-stop, diving at random and, after having stayed submerged for several seconds, would pop up like a cork. More often than not it was successful in finding small fish in the murky floodwater.

"I'm watching you, watching me,"

As seen in this photo, the Horned Grebe’s deep-red eyes are connected to its bill by a thin line and may play a role in locating prey in dark and dingy water. They are excellent swimmers and the young are able to swim immediately after hatching but mostly they hitch a ride on their mother’s back. 

Down the hatch!

By tilting its head slightly, the Horned Grebe allows its finned prey to easily slide down its gullet. More at home on the water, they feed mainly on fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects.  Unlike ducks which are content to sit motionless if undisturbed, the Horned Grebe is perpetual motion, constantly on the move when on the water.  

Still sporting its winter plumage, the “horns” for which this species derives its name are actually tufts of feathers located behind and slightly above its eyes. The russet-colored “horns” will become much more prominent during breeding season at which time the Horned Grebe’s neck will become rufous (reddish-brown) and the plumage along its back will darken considerably.

The solitary bird spent the better part of that weekend with us. We first spotted him around noon on a Saturday and for the entire time – during daylight hours anyway - he was constantly on the move, alternately swimming and diving for food. He must have been fueling up for the next leg of his journey as he was gone by first light on Monday morning.  

Until Next Time,
Jim & Claudia

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