October brings to local ponds, lakes, and rivers large numbers of waterfowl, most of which have bred in northern wetlands and are stopping to fuel up for journeys farther south. Among the many species of ducks that frequent our bodies of freshwater, there often appears the pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps). Though it superficially resembles a duck, the grebe, in fact, is not one. It belongs to a family of its own, a group of swimming and diving birds whose feet don’t have webs but rather lobes that look like little paddles.
The pied-billed grebe is small and compact, with a largish head and almost no tail. It’s hard to avoid “cute” as a descriptor of the bird. Constantly in search of aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, frogs, and vegetation for sustenance, it often spends more time underwater than on the surface. For the birder straining to get a good look, the grebe seems to be playing a perpetual game of peek-a-boo. Once it pops into view, especially through a telescope, it usually elicits an exclamation of delight from the observer. It can be hard work to get a good look at a pied-billed grebe!
As for field marks, the bill described in its name is the definitive one. It looks as if someone drew a thick line around the short, stout bill – a bit like a bill with lipstick. “Pied” means “of two colors” and refers to the black line and silvery color of the bird’s beak. Males and females look essentially alike. The babies are ULTRA-cute with their fluffy, pied head and neck plumage of black and white. As with the young of other grebe species, they frequently hitch a ride on the back of their mother.
Two interesting features that lend further intrigue to the pied-billed grebe are its ability to sink ever-so-slowly from the surface, in alligator or submarine fashion, until it has disappeared from view, and its tendency to eat its own feathers. The former behavior has earned it the epithets of water-witch and devil-diver. The latter habit apparently is a means of straining out indigestible body parts of small animals the grebe has eaten; the feathers serve as a sort of internal sieve that rejects them from entering the intestine and helps form them into pellets that the bird can regurgitate.
I used to think that pied-billed grebes did not nest in the Barrington area. But I was wrong. They are shy birds and can be hard to find, but they have bred uncommonly in sheltered wetlands in our area for years. It has been only recently that I have become aware of them as a local breeding species, especially in the marshes of Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve whose quality has improved under intensive restoration efforts. The nests are small floating platforms, usually well hidden in emergent vegetation. This past spring and summer, every time I visited the Headwaters section of the preserve, north of Route 72, I heard the vocalization of pied-billed grebes that signaled breeding territory.
I only learned the sound several years ago when I was leading a walk at Headwaters. Strong notes rang out that reminded me of those of a cuckoo, yet they weren’t. And at the edge of a large wetland well vegetated with aquatic plants, I knew the calls must come from some sort of waterbird. I was stumped until a friend later was describing to me the quality of a grebe’s vocalization and compared it to a cuckoo’s. Since then I listen for the notes every time I wander in or near local marshes of good quality.
This time of year is an opportune time to see pied-billed grebes at Baker’s Lake or the lakes in North Barrington or any body of still water that has vegetation where the grebes can hide. Often there will be several, or even a large number, diving underwater, popping to the surface for several seconds or more, then disappearing once again. They tend not to linger much beyond late October or November. That’s when their distant cousins, the horned grebes, fly into town. But that’s another story.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
Do you have any questions for Wendy about birds you’ve spotted in the Barrington area? If so, Just ask Wendy via the comments box below.