Red-necked Grebes

Red-necked Grebes

Red-necked Grebes

Last weekend there was a huge group of Red-necked Grebes on Sand Point Lake in Voyageurs National Park. We counted 60 birds plus there were more in small groups peppered around the lake. They look a lot like a small Loon and in fact they behave very much like Loons. They dive for fish and they use their eyes  to peer under the water while on the surface. A habit that Loons also use when looking for edible items under water. The flock of Grebes contained adults and juveniles. The young birds were still showing the facial stripes of their youth.

Red-necked Grebes by Brian Hatson

Red-necked Grebes by Brian Hatson

Like Loons, the baby Red-necked Grebes ride on their parents back for protection. The young birds are quite cute with their bold facial stripes.

Red-necked Grebes winter along both coasts of the US and in the fall they will gather in large groups as they migrate from their summer breeding range. Red-necked Grebes nest across Canada from the central plains into the western parts. In looking at the range map, they also nest in Minnesota, one of the very few states where they breed in the US.

The population splits somewhere around Saskatoon, Saskatshewan with some of the birds going to the east coast and some going to the west coast to winter. The eastern migration route runs through the Great Lakes where huge rafts rest and feed before moving on. Only in 1989 did researchers discover that many birds stage on Lake Superior before moving east.

I’ve been told that there is a breeding population on Pelican Lake by Orr, MN. Pelican Lake seems like the perfect environment for R-N Grebes as they like marshy areas that are adjacent to a large body of water. They build a floating nest of decayed and water-soaked vegetation. R-N Grebes are described as “pugnacious” birds as they are very aggressive around their breeding areas. They will carry out underwater attacks if an intruder gets too close. If, for instance, a Loon were to venture into their territory, the Red-necked Grebe will dive underwater and attack the legs and under-body of the Loon. I wonder how a Snapping Turtle might deal with this.

After breeding the Grebes are flightless for a while as they molt their flight feathers, at this time they will seek out remote bays and estuaries where they will be safe from predators.

In the Spring they do an elaborate dance that rivals their cousins, the Western Grebe. They run across the water with their breasts puffed out and their heads held high. There is also a bill clacking ritual. I was lucky enough to witness Red-necked Grebes dancing on Clearwater Lake in central Minnesota many years ago. It is rare to see such a performance once they are on their breeding grounds. Most of the pair mating rituals are done before they reach their breeding territories.

Conservationists are concerned about recent declines in the populations of Red-necked Grebes. Habitat loss is a big reason for the decline. The Minnesota DNR has asked that nesting Red-necked Grebes be reported to them so they can get a better understanding of the needs for this bird in Minnesota.

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