Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Friday, May 6, 2016

The Mother Ship

Young pied-billed grebes spend a lot of time on board the "mother ship." 

Technically, I am not positive about the gender of the parent. However, in honor of mothers everywhere and Mother's Day specifically, I am sticking with the mother-ship concept.

 Just like human young, they love looking out the window. You can almost hear them asking, "Are we there yet?"

The parents must have a great deal of patience and endurance. 

This adult is carrying four young, while a fifth is attempting to board via the stern.

The carrying capacity may not be posted, but the captain is clearly aware of the issue.

Lifting the bow institutes a fail-safe maneuver which keeps the ship afloat. Luckily, the passengers do not require flotation devices.

Almost immediately some of them climb back on board.

The young birds beg for food almost incessantly. 

The older and larger youngsters seem the most focused on food, which is good since soon they will be hunting on their own. Unlike mallard ducklings or geese goslings, young grebes are not hatched with the ability to find their own food. 

While underwater, the adult bites and shakes the prey into smaller pieces. I suspect the water helps to keep the food from flying away. It may also be safer, since initially the young birds tend to stay on the surface.

The young are certainly demanding.

Often the most aggressive youngster is rewarded.

The parents have plenty to do, so they do not micro-manage the feeding process. The food offered can be a bit large. This young grebe has the food but initially is only able to keep one leg above the surface. 

Like humans, the young often drop their food. Sometimes, the parent will wait a moment...

...before ducking under to retrieve the fallen food.

The food gets automatically washed in the process. No thirty second rule required.

It may be that large pieces of food are just part of the learning process. Unlike ducklings and goslings, these young birds must learn to be predators. Learning to consume large pieces of prey in a hurry can make all the difference.

The challenge can seem overwhelming.

The youngster rises to the challenge.

While some are feeding, the rest are keeping warm. A floating flotilla of warmth and protection.

Even from an adult's perspective, a larger fish can be challenging.

Not only must the parent subdue the prey, but they also have to watch out for their progeny. The young could easily get hammered by a flying fish tail.

In this case, the adult puts safety first and simply swallows the fish before someone gets hurt.

When the parent heads off on another hunting expedition, the young bird must find its own way back to the other parent. About fifty feet away, large carp are swiping food off the lily pads. It pays to stay close to an adult.

The safest place of all.

Still, every parent needs a break from child care.

It turns out that diving below the surface is another way to lighten the parental load. Did you notice the tiny little wings on the bird on the left?

When the parents finally switched roles, the newly "freed" adult spends over six minutes preening and cleaning.

I suspect there was a lot of residue to remove and plenty of feathers to align.

No matter how much you love your offspring, it can be nice to spread your wings and go it alone once in a while.

Update: If you enjoyed this post you may also like:

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature nests in the city!


PS: Thank to Scott and Paul who guided me in the direction of these early birds. I have been watching other Union Bay nest sites and those other pied-billed grebes are still on eggs.


  1. Thanks for sharing such great photos!

  2. Wonderful post!!

  3. Nice job, as always, Larry.
    In Pied-bills (as well as other grebes) one of the "more prominent" differences between the sexes is the size of the bill, especially the depth (height) of the bill. The male's having a larger bill. In your pictures you can see this difference quite well when you compare image # 7 (the one where young are getting back on after the dumping off) and # 8 (first one in the feeding series). The bird carrying the young I think is indeed the female (in this case, though males also carry young), while the much heavier bill in the adult providing the fish indicates it's the male (although females also feed young).
    You must have images showing both adults side-by-side. If their bills show in profile you should be able to confirm this easily.

    1. Martin,
      Thank you! As soon as I read your comments and glanced at the photos the difference became crystal clear. It is as obvious as the nose on my face (pun intended). I find it hard to believe I could have missed this. Thank you for the continuing education! I hope you and your family have a great Mother's Day! All the best!

  4. Great photos and narration! Thanks!

  5. Thanks for sharing these great photos. We were walking by Union Bay today and saw the 5 baby grebes and parents feeding them. Someone told us about your site. Good stuff!

    1. Great! It is good to know the 5 young are still there. It seems to me that everyday they survive increases their odds of reaching maturity. Thanks for the update.

  6. Thank you for sharing these photos and for the work you do! This evening I shared these photos and your great commentary with our 8 and 4 year old daughters as a bed-time treat. We were all very excited and inspired to learn more about the wildlife that are right around us!

    1. Wonderful!!! Our hope for a world harmony with nature starts with wonderful experiences like you described. Thank you!

  7. Oh my goodness, they are truly so precious!
    How fortunate you were to be able to capture these beautiful images.

    1. Thank you! You are very kind. I do think these grebes are cuter when they are young.