By Krisztina Scheeff
When it comes to dating in the world of grebes it is not as easy as just going out for a fish dinner or a morning swim. These birds have much higher standards. If a mate cannot “walk” on water, they are out of luck. I have spent years studying the grebes and the sounds they make right before rushing, so much so that my clients call me the “Grebe Whisperer.” Knowing the behavior and sounds they make is crucial to being prepared to get a shot of this unique phenomenon, since the whole production only lasts five to seven seconds.
Lake Hodges in Southern California is home to hundreds of resident western and Clark’s Grebes. It is easy to differentiate them. In this photo the western grebe is in the front (black feathers cover around the eye) and the Clark’s grebe is in the back (it is all white feathers around the eye).
These large, elegant black and white water birds live here all year around and breed in the winter months. Courtship in the world of Grebes is quite elaborate and involves more than just walking on water. The sequence is:
This is the only courtship display that is regularly performed by lone individuals. Unpaired males and females advertise “spontaneously” while swimming restlessly from one open water area to the next in search of a mate. On hearing the call, interested birds of the opposite sex respond by approaching and advertising in reply.
Ratchet pointing and dip shaking
When two grebes come together courtship starts with ratchet pointing and dip shaking and then engage in rushing. While ratchet-pointing the birds point their bills toward each other, raise their crests, and produce a harsh, ratchet-like call with their heads held low. They dip their bills in the water splashing right and left for about three to four seconds.
During mating season grebes engage in a maneuver called rushing in which coordinated groups of two or more sprint up to 60 feet across the water in about seven seconds. While they rush all year, the busy “dating season” is November through March.
The birds turn to one side and lunge forward with their bodies completely out of the water as they rush across the water, side by side, with their necks curved gracefully forward. It’s thrilling to watch, and even more thrilling to photograph.
How they do it? A combination of up to 20 steps per second, forceful slaps on the water’s surface with splayed feet, and an unusual stride help these grebes defy gravity. Researchers described how in the April, 2015, Journal of Experimental Biology. In comparison, the fastest humans can make perhaps five or six steps per second.
Rushing is done between male and female birds (55% of the time) or between two male birds (45%). In groups of three or more, there is usually one female and the rest are males. Rushing is not a race, it is a synchronized dance or, shall I say, a dating step.
How far they rush? This next shot really demonstrates the ground they cover!
Barge trilling (treading)
With neck extended upward, crest raised, head horizontal, and wings folded, the bird vigorously paddles with its feet, causing the front half of its body to emerge nearly vertically from the water. This primarily involves males only.
The weed dance
Weed-dancing occurs only late in the pair-formation sequence and it is limited to male-female birds. With weeds in its bill, a bird rises to a nearly vertical position and turns vigorously with its feet, so that two-thirds of its body remain out of the water. The two birds will come together and touch, continuing the slow turns.
Bob-preening appears to occur only between grebes that have engaged in previous courtship activities together and are familiar with each other. They do mirror each others activities, so if you are looking for the “heart”, this is the time to get it.
Mate-feeding occurs regularly in pairs in the later stages of pair formation, usually one to three weeks prior to building a nest platform. The female grebe will begin to demand food by repeatedly giving loud begging calls between the dives of the male grebe. He will feed her as long as she begs for food.
Western and Clark’s grebes build floating nests that are designed to move up and down as the water levels fluctuate. They nest in colonies and build their nests near the water’s edge in emergent vegetation, usually rushes or reeds. Both male and female build the nest together.
Mating on the nest
Once the nest is built, matting is done, often multiple times.
You can learn more about these fascinating birds in an episode of The Nature Photographer podcast, a partnership between NANPA and the team at Wild & Exposed, where I was featured in an extended discussion of grebes and bird photography.
During NANPA’s Southern California Regional Event, February 3-6, 2022, participants will be able to witness and photograph grebes rushing and other courtship behaviors. Participants will also spend a few days at San Diego’s best wildlife and landscape spots to photograph some of the over 300 migratory birds that visit San Diego in the winter. For the third time, I will be joined by David Hekel, aka “Range Dave,” to lead this Regional Event. For more information or to sign up click here.
And, to leave you with a dose of almost terminal cuteness, here are a few shots of the grebes with chicks. Grebes lay 1-4 eggs and, once chicks hatch, they climb on the parent’s back where they will spend the next 6 weeks. Both parents take turns carrying and feeding the chicks.
Grebes do not nest every year, it all depends on the weather and available food source. The years when we get plenty winter rain are tend to be great nesting seasons. While they rush every winter, they don’t always mate, kind of like dating, but not necessarily marrying, that year. Hope to see you in San Diego!
Krisztina Scheeff is an award-winning and professional nature photographer who specializes in photographing the Rushing Grebes and guiding her clients at Lake Hodges in San Diego to experience this amazing behavior and capture their own photos. Recognized for her photographic work in National Audubon Society as well as a finalist in the prestigious Wildlife Photograph of the Year competition, Krisztina’s photos have been published in magazines and articles around the world, including National Geographic, Wild Planet Photo Magazine, California 101, San Diego Audubon Society, American Wild Magazine, Birders Digest, Marine Conservation Magazine – UK, North American Nature Photography Association, and more. They have also been featured in Art Shows and Galleries around the country. Krisztina operates a successful business leading Photography Workshops and Tours to Scotland (Puffins), Ireland, Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, Hungary, Bosque del Apache. She also leads workshops for Bird Festivals around the country and presents at various events.