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To See the Grebe, Be the Grebe

I'm lucky to have the chance to see both Western & Clark's Grebes locally throughout the summer and into fall.  A particularly well-known spot to study both Aechmophorus species, sometimes side-by-side, is at Union Reservoir on the east side of Longmont, Colorado.  But the lake's attraction to these large grebes comes with a trade-off: They often loiter near the middle of the mile+ wide lake.  Even with a top scope the views aren't great, and with any kind of air distortion they can't be ID'd to species, much less satisfactorily photographed. 

With lovely late-summer weather blessing a recent weekend, I decided to dust off my recreational kayak and attempt a grebe infiltration.  Besides a few thousand mid-lake grebes to aim for, the reservoir has no speed boating or jet skiing, so I didn't have to worry about rogue wakes or bird-scattering waterborne missiles upsetting my outing.  I rigged up my tripod to sit securely with two legs athwart the gunwales and one out in front along the keel.  The rig was very comfortably steady, though I had a dry bag to stash my camera in if I felt things getting dicey.  It went unused but felt like good insurance.  (Disclaimer- deploying a camera in this way is always one mistake or accident away from unrepairable disaster so get real familiar with your boat and check your rig on dry land before attempting!) 


The grebes didn't panic at my approach but also didn't hang around, managing to get farther away on each dive and eventually leaving me in a bird-free halo with a radius of at least 100 meters if I lazed in one spot.  So I settled on a technique of paddling gently towards promising groups, snapping shots when they were close or passing by, and then moving on to the next group to avoid harrying any particular birds more than once.  I hope you enjoy the fruits of my little private pelagic outing amongst the grebes!


Adult Clark's Grebe (left) & Western Grebe (right), Union Reservoir, Weld County, Colorado.  In this side-by-side comparison, note that in Clark's Grebe the eye is isolated in an all-white face, the bill is brighter yellow, and the flanks paler than in Western Grebe.



Western Grebe parents working hard to fledge two juveniles before the winter freeze.  It still astonishes me how late these birds pull off breeding but every year, well into fall, many small begging gray grebes can be seen with their parents.



Adult & juv. Western Grebe.



I think this is a juv. Clark's Grebe but I didn't stick around long enough to confirm parentage!



Adult & juv. Clark's Grebes.



Vocalizing adult Clark's Grebe.  It was pretty amazing to be surrounded by constantly calling Western & Clark's Grebes & noisy begging youngsters!


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Bill Schmoker

Bill Schmoker

Bill is known in the birding community as a leading digital photographer of birds. Since 2001 he has built a collection of digital bird photos documenting over 640 species of North American birds. His photography has appeared in international nature publications, books, newspapers, interpretive signs, web pages, advertisements, corporate logos, and as references for art works. Also a published writer, Bill wrote a chapter for Good Birders Don't Wear White, is a past Colorado/Wyoming regional editor for North American Birds and is proud to be on the Leica Birding Team. Bill is a Colorado eBird reviewer and is especially fond of his involvement with the ABA's Institute for Field Ornithology and Young Birder Programs. Bill is a popular birding guide, speaker, and workshop instructor, and teaches middle school science in Boulder, Colorado. When he isn’t birding he enjoys family time with his wife and son.
Bill Schmoker

Latest posts by Bill Schmoker (see all)

  • Great shots, excellent definition.

  • Thanks for not only sharing your awesome photos, but your method too. Great to have met you at Magee Marsh during the Midwest Birding Symposium!

  • Liz Deluna

    I am a huge grebe fan. Although I like the little grebes too.
    Nice post.

  • I love the juvenile grebe photos. Great shots! And nice for studying the younger ones some of us rarely get to see in the field.

  • Maji Stone

    Hello Bill – I live in Aurora, Colorado near Sand Creek. I’m recovering
    from a Liver transplant, and began taking walks to build up my
    stamina. It helped me to become active, and turned me into a serious
    bird-watcher. Having little interest in birds, I went on my first walk
    there and saw this odd looking critter that looked a lot like a Canadian
    Goose. He kept stretching out his legs so that his feet (flippers?)
    rose out of the water behind him. No matter what path I took, he
    always swam on the far shore. Having nothing longer than a 55/250mm
    lens, I sent the first photos off to Dave’s Garden (a forum that
    identifies plants and critters from submitted photos). I kept coming
    back to the creek and filming this beautiful bird. I saw a pair of them
    one day, and made a lovely (but shaky) video. wherein a Grebe was
    napping with his head tucked back almost to his tail, and he would
    sometimes wake up from his doze, and stretch his legs out. I managed to
    get a couple of shots that detailed their red eyes. This first
    sighting occurred on May 5, and I continued seeing them through the
    middle of June. I intend to pitch a tent out there this coming spring,
    but not before I find a 300mm lens for my Canon. Thanks for your post.
    I can’t imagine making such risky efforts to observe them, so Kudos to
    you. I think I’ll just sneak down there before sunrise, then crouch
    down and use a tripod. My goal is to get an image of mommy. carrying
    chicks on her back.

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