Photo credit of Western grebe: Kathleen Scavone
Have you seen them? The swan-like black and white water birds that are known to dance across the waters of Clear Lake, the grebes. Glorious to view at any time of the year, they are most interesting to watch in springtime when they perform a courting dance while rushing or running across the water! Other courting activities include diving for emerald strands of lake vegetation and offering them to their mate as the perfect nesting material.
I’ll never forget a certain Heron Days boat ride in 2017 when the Redbud Audubon Society floated us up Cache Creek in a pontoon boat to the lake, where we viewed hundreds of both western and Clark’s grebes nesting, dancing and calling out with their distinctive ‘creee’ song.
As the boat slowed to keep the wake from disturbing the birds, we were all awe-struck at the beauty of the birds on their floating nests. We were even privileged to view their eggs! Typically, grebes congregate in colonies to construct their nests with reeds and other lake vegetation. Then, great care must be taken around their floating abodes so that the nesting birds are not disturbed as they tend their nests of between one and seven eggs.
Both grebe parents alternate sitting on their nests which are located in colonies amongst the reeds. The eggs hatch in just over three weeks. Next, watch for families of grebes as the babies ride on their parents’ backs! As one parent is swanning about with up to four chicks on their back, the other is diving for food for the family.
The two species of black and white grebes found on Clear Lake are Clark’s grebe and the western grebe. Clark’s grebes have black caps that rise above the eye with a yellow-to-orange bill, while the western grebe’s black cap descends below the eye, with a bill that is yellow-green. Grebes can be seen in ponds, marshes and lakes, along with estuaries and coastal areas in the winter.
Ornithologists tell us there are 22 species of grebes found in the world. Graceful grebes feed on fish when they dive under the water to do their fishing. Grebe populations vary from season to season, with the years 2004- 2005 holding record amounts of 30,000 to 50,000 birds on Clear Lake. Then, they had an abundance of threadfin shad and silversides on which to dine.
Grebe populations vary due to droughts, as well as freezes when fish stores dwindle in cold water temperatures. Three other species of grebes visit Clear Lake, according to Redbud Audubon. They are horned grebes, which are smaller and more shy than other grebes, pied-billed grebes and eared grebes.
Over the years there have been various studies of grebes on Clear Lake, including those of Dr. Floyd Hayes of Pacific Union College in Angwin and his biology students who have monitored the breeding colonies for years, collecting data for analysis. Others who have made studies of our lake’s grebes include various Audubon chapters in California and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Bird watching in Lake County isn’t complete until you spy upon the graceful grebes!