The Secret Life of a Drab Bird

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Lovers,

I’ve had the joy of walking along the river with my son Anders this Christmas season, happily pointing out to him all my avian friends.  P1040650I challenged him to tell me whether the first photo below was an EARED GREBE or a Horned Grebe.  He studied the photos in Sibley, comparing them to my photo and, almost without hesitation,  made the correct choice – an Eared Grebe.  A budding birder?


I added a Horned Grebe from Google for all of you to compare.  It’s not as easy to distinguish between the two species as as you might think.  An experienced birder friend of mine says he remembers the difference between the two because the Eared Grebe is the one with the dirty neck.  With this  helpful mnemonic, I have given the nickname Smudgy to  all Eared Grebes.  The Horned Grebe, as you can see from the second Google photo, has much cleaner lines. Eared Grebes are much more common on our river, but Horned Grebes do appear from time to time.  Horned Grebes can also spend the winter out at sea.

Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe, non-breeding migrant,  near mouth of river, December 25, 2017 Photo by Barbara Riverwoman
Horned Grebe, non-breeding, Google photo


Drab they may be, but both  of these species go for broke during  breeding season!   The Google photos below reveal the transformation they go through each year!  And now you can see where they get their names.  Who would have suspected.

And if you want to see the Eared Grebe in person, you don’t have to travel to the Arctic.  Just go inland to the Central Valley this summer and you may find them.  They are alleged to gather by the thousands in Mono Lake right after their chicks hatch.  To see the Horned Grebe in breeding plumage, you would have to go to Canada or Alaska.

Eared Grebe
Eared Grebe, breeding plumage, Google image
Horned Grebe 2
Horned Grebe, breeding plumage, Google image.



It is very sad that both of these species are at the top of the list of North American birds most endangered by climate change.   The climate change model developed by researchers of the Audubon Society predicts a very bleak future for both the Eared and Horned Grebes.  Both species are predicted to lose 100% of their summer breeding range by 2080!  Their winter breeding range (including the San Lorenzo River),  is also steadily contracting, although it is predicted by the Audubon Report to  remain somewhat more stable (only a 38% loss).  That is too much!  And as the Audubon Report states,  what good is a stable wintering ground with a summer breeding range that will disappear by 2080!

The report adds that “Thankfully, the species also lives in the Old World and in central Mexico.  One hopes that those breeding populations fare better than is projected for the ones in the U.S. and Canada.”    Click here to see the report. We know so little about the effect our growth policies have on all the wonderful species that have evolved over millions of years.  Such hubris!

Here is a mosaic of some of the other beautiful birds that Anders and I saw and photographed on the river. Clockwise from upper left: PELAGIC CORMORANT, RED-TAILED HAWK, GREEN HERON, PEREGRINE FALCON (google image), COMMON GOLDENEYE, GREAT BLUE HERON.

May our New Year be filled with better news for the birds and for all living creatures great and small.







One thought on “The Secret Life of a Drab Bird

  1. Hello Barbara and Jane:

    Thanks for your great descriptions of the gorgeous grebings on the San Lorenzo River. It’s such a joy to see them enjoying their habitat!

    I’m troubled, once again, with “Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report.” The Report is not a reliable source on which to base conclusion about the future of local species and local habitat. is a crude projection based on questionable models, not a prediction of what will come about in future decades.

    Audubon Society researchers did not develop the climate change model cited in the report. What they did cite is a condensed model from an early climate change projection published by the IPCC. This projection is based on three scenarios of “global warming” based on assumptions of the effects of human produced CO2 on observed climate variations. These assumptions have come into question since their publication, based on actual temperature records, rather than numerical climate model projections.

    Furthermore, the Bioclimatic Envelope Models used in the study are questioned as a reliable means of determining variations in the range of temperatures and precipitation that are deemed suitable for an individual species. The assumptions in these models do not take into account the rebound effect from The Little Ice, plus limits and restrictions on habitat imposed by modern growth and development, agriculture and pesticide use that have had far greater effects on species habitat fluctuation than climate or weather.

    In short, any conclusions about local habitat changes due to global climate variation are not supported by the unsubstantiated claims in the Audubon report. We cannot say that San Lorenzo River habitat will decrease or increase in coming decades, based on any exisiting gobal climate change data.

Leave a Reply