May 15, 2024

Grebes in Unison

After a surprise sighting of a pair of Red-necked Grebes last Wednesday, I checked the lake again Thursday, and noticed a Red-necked Grebe a distance away, swimming from the edge of some cattails into more open water in a northerly direction. The sunlight was right and I began photographing, although the grebe was a little farther away than I prefer for good photos. Even so, there is always the chance that the grebe could swim closer, or break into an interesting action, so I was focused and ready.

With beautiful late morning light available, a surprise opportunity to photograph a Red-necked Grebe at close quarters was realized between dives to search for small fish (600mm zoom lens, f-8 aperture, 1/1600 shutter speed, 800 ISO).

After taking a few initial photos, I looked up from my camera’s viewfinder only to find that a second Red-necked Grebe was swimming just a few feet away! This, a smaller bird and apparently the female of a pair, was beautifully colored in the late morning sunlight, and I quickly shifted my attention to photograph her. When she dived below water in search of food, I repositioned to keep up with her progress, which her mate was paralleling. After starting with photos of the larger male from a distance, it was fun and exciting to have the female so close and see her diving time and time again; me repositioning another time too.

A breakthrough photo of a pair of Red-necked Grebes unison calling required being ready and staying a few extra moments even though the photo op seemed to have passed (600mm zoom lens, f-10 aperture, 1/1600 shutter speed, 800 ISO).

The male kept its distance to the west, probably a bit more than 100 feet from the shore and didn’t dive, almost seeming to be looking out for the female from a distance. At one point, when the female surfaced the male called, and I shifted my zoom lens to photograph his action. But the female answered his call, and they called back and forth as the female swam toward the male.

As she swam past the male they both reared upward with the front half of their body out of the water and began calling in unison with the feather tufts on the top of their head held erect. It was a pair display that I have not witnessed before, and while I was glad to witness and photograph the action, I naturally wished I was closer to photograph the action in sharper detail. And if I’m allowed to make a second wish, I wish the pair was closer together as the performed their unison call. Even so, I was able to document the pair as they displayed, which was the bottom line – an exciting event to be sure!

A close-up of the female of the first pair of Red-necked Grebes during their more intense unison call display in which the birds elevated part of their body above the water surface while calling (600mm zoom lens, f-8 aperture, 1/2500 shutter speed, 800 ISO).

Thinking my photo series was complete, I hesitated a moment to see what would transpire next, and was pleasantly surprised to see the female swim directly toward me and continue where she left off, diving and resurfacing close to my position – inside my mobile blind (car), parked on a gravel road that bisects the east side of the long lake, Herb’s Lake.

After a few more dives, the female surfaced with a small fish in her beak, which she swallowed, which may have satiated her considering that she swam back to the attendant male, calling at one point with her neck lowered and head tufts erect. The grebes swam to the northeast corner of the lake, where cattails are growing in the shallows, and they settled in for a while to rest out of the wind. This actually brought to mind the idea that this cattail stand could be an appropriate nesting area, if that’s what the interactions I just witnessed were leading to.

With the hope of improving on the display photos of the grebes, and perhaps adding some other action photos to my series, I really didn’t get another photograph of that pair of grebes to date. I’ve seen them, and I’ll stay in touch with the Red-necks with the hope of updating some more photos. Last year, there were 2 pairs of Red-necked Grebes on hand through most of the summer, but they stayed exclusively on the lake’s acreage east side of the bisecting road, and I never saw young grebes with any of the adults.

Red-necked Grebes are very rare across this region of the Missouri Coteau, but the past few years, I’ve located a pair some summers; one pair in particular that raised large 2 fledglings. It appears like this pair will stay and nest, and considering I sometimes see the male alone, the female may already be nesting.

Sunday Rewind

After not seeing any Red-necks on Herb’s Lake Saturday, I was glad to see the pair of grebes resting on the calm water with their head laid back on their curved neck near the northeast cattail stand. After taking a few photos, I left the grebes to chill while continuing my morning drive. But as I returned to the lake road, there was what appeared to be a second pair of Red-necked Grebes! Surely not the same pair that I left a half-mile north earlier, this pair began swimming in my direction, entering an open water area bounded by cattails on 3 sides. I took some photos and was impressed with the colors of the birds in the late morning light; and while they were partly obstructed by cattails, they called together in unison. Nice, but no photo op.

This is the original photo showing the pair of Red-necked Grebes unison calling during their more intense display. It was a bit distracting that the pair was widely separated and the white cheek and chin plumage on each side of the male’s face turned silver-gray when the male turned its head away from direct sunlight. Even so, the intensity of the moment is clear and the action is dramatic (600mm zoom lens, f-8 aperture, 1/2500 shutter speed, 800 ISO).

As they swam back to the open lake, the pair unison called again, but this time they were facing away from me – nice, but no photo op. But just a moment later, I was surprised to see the pair turn back and swim in my direction again – and then it happened: As I was focused on the grebes swimming together in sweet late morning light, they began unison calling in a most impressive way! This pair didn’t rise up like the other pair did, but as they called the presumed female swam closer to the male into an especially pleasing position in which she overlapped with the larger male just a bit, momentarily creating the opportunity for an impressive photo while the female held her head high as the grebes unison called – Hoooray!

The resulting photographs were as good as could be hoped for! And then it was over, the pair turned and swam away again, but I was thrilled with their encore performance; and to eventually be in the right place at the right time to achieve Red-necked photo bliss.

Article and photographs by Paul Konrad

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