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Monday, October 13, 2014

Breaking News | Grebe Update!

While reading last Saturday's post, "In Search of Elegance", Ann Marie Wood wondered if the bird in the story, might be a Clark's Grebe, rather than the closely related and far more common, Western Grebe. 

From what I have read, the Clark's Grebe is more common south and east of Puget Sound, but is relatively rare in Union Bay and western Washington. As a matter of fact, in my earliest Bird Guide, circa 1983, there is no mention of a Clark's Grebe, the distinction between the two types of birds has apparently been found in the last couple of decades.

When consulting newer guides distinctions can be found, related to the color of the feathers around the eyes.
  • The eyes of the Western Grebe are surrounded by dark feathers and 
  • The eyes of the Clark's are surrounded by white feathers, 
however in the winter, the guides show that both types of birds can have a mix of black and white feathers around the their eyes.  

For comparison, here is a photo of what is clearly a Western Grebe, taken yesterday morning, southwest of the Union Bay Natural Area.

The guides also mentioned the birds can be distinguished by:

  • The calls they make (which I have never heard), 
  • and the color of their bills.

A National Geographic Guide, circa 2002, says:

  • The bill of the Western Grebe is yellow-green and
  • The bill of the Clark's Grebe is orange.
While a Sibley Guide, circa 2003, says:

  • The bill of the Western Grebe is dusky yellow and
  • The bill of the Clark's Grebe is bright-yellow to orange-yellow.
Ann Marie suggested we ask for expert advice. I agreed.  

This afternoon Ann Marie's powers of observation were proven correct. This email from Connie Sidles explains:

Dear Larry, 

I've been meaning for a long time to thank you for posting your lovely photos of Union Bay, and for describing the birds you find there. But your shots of the Clark's Grebe (present today, along with three Westerns) gave me the nudge I needed to email you my thanks.

Your photos were key in identifying the Clark's. I asked Dennis Paulson to take a look at them on your blog, and he thinks they are definitely Clark's. He noted that even in yellow light, the dark orange at the base of the bill was typical of Clark's. Without your amazing skill at taking these pin-sharp photos, that detail would have been missed. I certainly couldn't see it in the field!
Anyway, thank you, dear Larry, for sharing this great bird with all of us. It is only the second time in all the 119 years of record-keeping that Clark's has been found. The only other record occurred in July 1989, when Kevin Aanerud heard two calling. I never thought I would be privileged to actually see a Clark's at the Fill myself, but thanks to you, I have. 

- Connie 

Here is a close up of the bird in question, which helps make the orange coloring obvious.

Here is another Western Grebe, from a couple of years ago. Now that Dennis has pointed it out, the dusky-green color is clearly different from the orange-yellow above.

Thank you to all the folks who offered guidance on this issue, in particular, to Ann Marie, Connie and especially Dennis Paulson for contributing to my birding education. 

Have a great day on Union Bay…where nature lives in the city!

Larry

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