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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Elegant Assassins

The sharp precision of the bill, the laser-like focus of the eyes and the long, thin neck give western grebes the appearance of elegant assassins. In the fall, when these grebes return to Union Bay our local fish should be scared. 

I find it hard to imagine more elegant creatures. The evenly distributed dark and light coloring, off set by the bright eyes and the yellow bill, provide a salve for our souls during the dark days of fall and winter.

Surprisingly, when a western grebe looks you in the eye its, elegance evaporates. The full frontal view seems to amplify their intensity. Perhaps this fearless stare inspired the phrase, 'If looks could kill...'

On the other hand, when they relax and paddle in silent circles they look like little toy boats, and it can be very hard to imagine their deadly intentions for aquatic life.

When they stand up in the water, to flap their wings and dry off a bit, you can see how the coloring of their bodies is evenly divided. They are dark above and light below.

When viewed from below, their white bellies must help them blend in with the sky. Their dark backs help make them less obvious, when seen from above. This type of countershading can also be referred to as Thayer's Law. You can read more about Thayer and his life's work by Clicking Here.

Their wings appear to have a similar distribution of color.

With their feet attached at the rear of their bodies, they can not only stand up in the water, but they can also roll their bodies sideways while paddling about. This 90 degree turn puts the grebe's belly on one side and its back on the other while their head and neck remain vertical.

This is particularly handy when preening and cleaning feathers which are normally positioned below the waterline.

It can also be helpful when attempting to scratch the back of the head. It looks like every inch of the long neck is required for this endeavor.

I am guessing this grebe has finished resting and is stretching its mouth before resuming its feeding activities.

This assumption was reinforced when the bird's next immediate action was to stretch its neck and wings.

Catching a grebe in the process of diving is quite a challenge. Normally, by the time I am aware that they are beginning to dive, they are gone, leaving only a gentle ripple on the surface of the water.

When they come up from a dive they sometimes rid themselves of excess water by shaking like a dog. I must admit that in the case of a canine, the ears flapping from side to side adds a certain element humor. The elegant grebes apparently have no use for humor, or large flapping ears.

Even though western grebes are generally found in groups, or colonies, they do require a certain amount of elbow room. This bird is coiling its neck and preparing to chase off, or strike out at a bird which has encroached on its personal space.

I have yet to see another bird with the courage to stand and fight when faced with the sharp, spear-like bill of an irritated western grebe.

I felt like I could almost hear this coot saying, 'Run, run as fast as you can...'

'...you can't catch me I'm the gingerbread man!'

In the past I have only seen from one to three grebes at a time on Union Bay. In October, I was excited to see eight of them swimming near the shell house. Yesterday I spoke with Ingrid, who has seen as many as ten this fall. My friend Andy Jacobson, from my Master Birder class, mentioned that over 300 have been seen at Magnuson Park this weekend. I certainly hope this means their wintering numbers are increasing in the Seattle area. 

All About Birds states that western grebes are particularly sensitive to pesticides. If you find these birds as beautiful and elegant as I do, you can help increase their odds of survival by utilizing organic or mechanical methods of pest control.

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


Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. Can you identify these birds? Are they native to Union Bay?


Scroll down for the answers


These are the first Trumpeter Swans that I have seen above Union Bay this fall. Yesterday, I could tell they were Trumpeter and not Tundra Swans by their trumpeting as they flew over. From the photo alone you should be perfectly satisfied with having identified that they were either one or the other. They are native to our area in the winter. I do wonder if their migration patterns will change as temperatures continue to rise.


The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional work around is to setup my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net



  1. I also have spent many enjoyable hours watching the Western Grebes. I have watched them feeding many times,but never once saw them surface with a fish. Have you ever witnessed this?

    1. I don't I have ever seen one with a fish either. I did a google images search and did see a photo of one with a fish though. I am guessing they must swallow most of them underwater. However, that sure seems odd compared to pied-billed grebes, for instance. It is certainly an interesting point.

    2. The previous thought was intended to start out with, 'I don't think I ...'

  2. When I started kayaking almost 20 years ago, there used to be fairly large flocks of Western Grebes out on the South Sound and then they started declining in numbers. About 3 weeks ago I was happy to see about 20 at the Westport Marina, by Float 21. Thank you for a superb and intriguing article!!

    1. It sure would be helpful if we knew where in their migration and reproductive processes they were encountering the greatest challenges. Thank you for following by blog.

  3. These are gorgeous photos. I wonder how much the limited seasonal appearance of western grebes is a matter of preference, and how much is a response to summer boat traffic and general decline. Not that long ago (maybe 15 years), I used to see summertime rafts (100 - 150) of grebes in Lake Washington. I window to open my office window to enjoy the chorus of many small, high-pitched calls while working. Karin Frey

    1. that is, "..would open my office window"

    2. The seasonal part of the question is really interesting. All About Birds shows all of Washington as breeding territory, however Birdweb (from Seattle Audubon) shows Eastern Washington as breeding territory and Puget Sound as a wintering territory. If I remember correctly Dennis Paulson helped create Birdweb so I trust it to be correct. Still In my fantasies, I would love to see mating dances on Union Bay.

  4. Thank you. Very informative.

    I did guess swan, but because I am not from your area, I had no idea which specie. Lovely photos.

    1. Great job! I am certainly glad you enjoy the posts - especially since you are following from afar! All the best!

  5. Larry,

    As always, nice job.
    Love the shot of the grebe in Pork-pie Attitude (look it up, that's the official name for the bill tucked between the breast feathers at the base of the neck).
    I actually once got to witness an abbreviated version of a pair of Western Grebes rushing in a small waterway between houseboats on Lake Union....That was during spring just before they took off for their eastern Washington breeding grounds, back when a flock of them would winter on Lake Union.
    As to their hunting and eating habits. They often will dive down to the bottom and hunt fish from below (silhouetting fish against the sky). Most larger fish found in Western Grebe stomachs will have a hole the size of the bill in it (this from old studies where they "collected" birds and analyzed their stomach contents to see what they were eating).
    They do use those daggers as weapons during territorial disputes and will at times kill other water birds they judge to be trespassing (I believe there's a record of a Western Grebe killing a Northern Shoveler by spearing it during an underwater attack).
    Another interesting note: because they spear the fish (using that long neck the same way herons do) and then open the bill to prevent the wriggling fish from slipping off the bill, the jaw muscles to open the bill are the strongest jaw muscles in Western Grebes. As opposed to the jaw muscles of the Pied-billed Grebe where the ones to close the bill are strongest. Since Pied-bills squeeze their fish prey to death (damaging internal organs) and will de-claw freshwater crustaceans (crayfish) by holding on to the leg behind the claw and shaking it till the claw breaks off, this makes perfect sense. "Form" and function.
    So much fascinating stuff!
    Your posts always inspire. Keep up the great work!

    1. Martin,
      Thank you for your wonderful generosity, knowledge and mentorship. The details you have provided are truly amazing. Occasionally, I wish I could photograph underwater behavior and after reading your description of a western grebe hunting fish below the surface it certainly makes the idea even more appealing. Congratulations on seeing the mating type behavior of Lake Union - that sounds delightful. Thanks again for all the rich and wonderful details! Spearing, Form and Function, Pork-Pie, Jaw Muscles, etc. Have a wonderful day!