A movement caught my eye on the chilly January day. The glimpse had come from under the leafless branches of some willows and cottonwoods where a small pond was tucked in a thicket. I froze but could see nothing until I slowly crouched down. There, floating on the water, was a football-sized mass of feathers, tan along the waterline and darker above. It had two black eyes that glared at me from a smallish head, probably wondering if I was friend or foe. A tiny Pied-billed Grebe drifted less than 20 feet from me.
Typically, they slink away, so I decided to settle here and see what it would do. These grebes are permanent residents in the Puget Trough, but over much of the United States, they are migratory. People seldom see them flying because they travel at night and rarely fly to escape a disturbance. Usually, Pied-bills dive and swim away, often undetected. People on birding outings will often comment, “Oh, it’s just a grebe,” wanting I presume to see something more colorful, bigger, less mundane.
Their distribution is fascinating with breeding populations in both North and South America. Although a few are in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Central America, generally, a big geographic gap exists between those groups on each continent.
For North America, the animation of weekly abundance data from eBird showed that in January, Pied-bills were concentrated in Florida and along the Southeast coastal plains and across into Texas and Northeastern Mexico. Lots were also in the central valley of California and then a few here in Puget Sound. Some were scattered elsewhere, especially Central Mexico and near the Gulf of California. By March, birds had moved into the Great Plains and by late April had extended into the Canadian prairies, Central Washington, and British Columbia. Their numbers in the Southeast had plummeted by April, but those in central California remained pretty constant. In the fall, they started to head back toward the Gulf Coast.
In South America, the migration was in the opposite direction. In late January, lots were in Northeastern Brazil and then scattered to northern Argentina. As the year progressed, they migrated south to breed from Southern Brazil into Central Argentina. A few were also in Chile, Equator, and Columbia. Of all the grebe species in the Western Hemisphere, Pied-bills have the most extensive distribution.
The one in Magnuson Park, a protected area in Seattle, slowly turned a complete circle while keeping one eye on me. Its back and sides had water droplets beaded on the feathers. Those feathers seemed slicked down but waterproof. The bill still had the black ring mid-way out and the bluish-white base. Usually, they lose that band, and the bill becomes more yellowish-brown in the non-breeding season. Perhaps, its breeding hormones were still flowing here in January.
The bird radiated a sense of pride, confidence. In Celtic mythology, the grebe guards the spirit world and helps humans find beauty where they otherwise might not. The contours of its body, the S-shape of its neck, the tautness of its muscles all projected splendor.
Suddenly, the grebe just sank out of sight, hardly making a ripple. No dive, it just dropped as if it was a rock gently placed on the surface. The bird must have compressed its body feathers, squeezing out the trapped air, and tightened its chest muscles to make its air sacks smaller, decreasing its buoyancy.
I shook my head as I got back to my feet. Birds are so marvelous.
A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Newsletter #184.