The Ultimate Wisconsin Winter Grebe Guide

Birds in winter (non-breeding) plumage can be extremely difficult to identify, especially Grebes. With these tips, hopefully it makes identification a little easier, and will help to make you a “Grebe expert” in the field. The guide is broken up into 3 different size categories (Large/Medium-Large/Small) and discusses the most frequently seen Grebes in the state of Wisconsin.

Large Grebes

Western Grebe

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis)

Overview: The Western Grebe is a rare visitor to the state of Wisconsin. It is extremely similar to the Clark’s Grebe (which is far less-likely to be found in the state with the last ebird record dating back to 1987). They often show up as one solitary individual on a large body of water such as Lake Michigan. They are bright white and dark gray/black with a long, slender, yellow bill, and a red eye.

Bill: Long, thin, yellow bill. Bill is normally at least 3/4 the length of the head.

Non-breeding coloration: Gray body, black back and top of head and neck. White underside of neck and body. Stark contrast between white and dark coloration. Red eye.

Body Shape: Medium sized, large for grebes (21.7-29.5 inches). Similar to the size of a large Red-breasted Merganser (20.1-25.2 inches) or a smaller Common Loon (26-35.8 inches).

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Western Grebe is larger than most Grebe species except for the Red-necked Grebe which can be similar in size, although the Red-necked Grebe is far less bright, and more dull gray and white, compared to the bright white and black seen in the Western Grebe. Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than horned grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns (see photo below). The Western Grebe will have a longer, more slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as 3/4 the length of the head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.

Medium-Large Grebes

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked_Grebe
Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Overview: Red-necked grebes can be seen on larger bodies of water during migration in the winter months. They lose their bright summer colors and trade them in for dull gray-brown plumage. They are medium in size and larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species, but not as large as Western Grebes or Loons.

Bill: Bill is about 3/4 the length of the head.

Non-breeding coloration: Gray to gray-brown body and top of head with white throat and cheek. The areas are not strongly defined and portions of the plumage appear “muddled”. Brown eye, yellow bill.

Body Shape: Medium sized, medium-large for grebes (16.9-22 inches). Comparable to the size of a Canvasback (18.9-22 inches).

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Red-necked Grebe is larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species and will be mostly gray-brown in color with some white near the face. The horned Grebe will have a smaller bill, and a whiter face when in winter (non-breeding) plumage. The Western Grebe will have a brighter white color than the non-breeding Red-necked grebe.

Small Grebes

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus)

Overview: Horned Grebes are the most common gray and white grebe seen in the winter in Wisconsin. They are small in size, and multiple Horned Grebes are often seen in the same location, although they will not necessarily be “flocking” with each other.

Bill: Bill is less than 1/2 length of the head and fairly dark in coloration, black or gray.

Non-breeding coloration: Gray-brown body and top of head with white underside of throat and cheek. Red eye, with line coming down to base of bill.

Body Shape: Small and compact (12.2-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Bufflehead (12.6-15.7 inches).

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Horned Grebe can appear very similar to the Eared Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes. The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a Horned Grebe will not. The lack of “peaked” feathers, and more stark gray and white coloration also differentiates them from Eared Grebes. (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than Horned Grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns. The Western Grebe will have a longer, slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as its head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.

Horned Grebe in transitional plumage (top) and breeding plumage (bottom)

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

Overview: Despite the Eared Grebe being the most common grebe in the world, it is considered rare in Wisconsin. It is one of the “small” grebes and will normally show up solitary or flocking with similar sized birds. They often have “peaked” feathers on the head and are likely to be most confused with Horned Grebes in the winter.

Bill: Thin, dark in color, often can appear to be slightly pointing upwards. Less than 1/2 the size of the head.

Non-breeding coloration: Gray and white body with red eye. Most individuals have peaked feathers on top of their head. Some white is present on the throat and nape of the neck, along with some white visible on the flank.

Body Shape: small and robust, with peaked crown on top of head (11.8-13.8 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches). The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, as opposed to sloping into the water.

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Eared Grebe can appear very similar to the Horned Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). The back end of an eared grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a horned grebe will not. The shape of the head with the “peaked” feathers, and more mottled gray coloration and short, thin bill are also solid identification features.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

Overview: During the winter the Pied-billed Grebe is often seen on larger bodies of water in small flocks. Their head is blocky and large compared to their smaller body. They often resemble a small “Loch-ness monster” shaped bird, and dive frequently. Therefore, when looking for Pied-billed grebes, make several scans.

Bill: Small, thick, triangle-shaped, yellow-brown bill.

Non-breeding coloration: Brown body (sometimes gray), brown eye.

Body Shape: small and lanky, with long neck compared to body (11.8-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches).

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Pied-billed grebe is the only common grebe in Wisconsin that is small in size and brown in color. Their blocky head, slender neck, short and stocky bill also differentiate them from similar species.

All in all, picking through winter Grebes can be tricky, but knowing the key ID features can help you spot a rarity in Wisconsin. Whether it’s the “submarine-like” body of the Pied-billed Grebe, the “peaked” head of the Eared Grebe, or the long bill and neck of the Western Grebe, keep an eye out for the key characteristics that make all species of winter Grebes unique.

 

Photo Credit (Under Wikimedia Creative Commons License)
Red-necked Grebe photo by Ken Janes
Close up Horned Grebe by Mike Baird
Eared Grebe photo by Becky Matsubara
All other photos by Ryan or Derek Sallmann

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s