Northland Nature: Pied-billed grebes show patience
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at email@example.com.
The Patient Pied-billed Grebe
My daily walks take me by a pond close to the road allowing for very good viewing. As we went through the weeks of spring, this wetland provided exceptional watching seasonal changes with birds.
It began before ice-out when in late March, the first red-winged blackbird arrived back on territory. The bird immediately sang its “konk-a-lee” song; causing me to stop, look and listen. (The females do not return to this site for another month, and so these songs were aimed at other males, letting them know that this place was taken.)
As the days slowly warmed, I heard the flight sounds of snipes and guttural calls of sandhill cranes. In anticipation of the coming thaw, a couple Canada geese settled onto the ice to wait for open water. Once this melting event occurred, they were joined by other geese and the large loud trumpeter swans. They remained for the duration of the ice-out, but then departed for elsewhere. But the arrival of water birds continued.
In the next weeks, I watched as mallards, wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, buffleheads and shovelers came. These ducks that seemed in no hurry to leave did so slowly, until only a few ring-necked ducks remained. Since these were all males and still on the water as spring turned into summer, I suspected that they were non-breeding ones that found this pond as a safe place to be for the warm season.
Among other birds that live near the wetland, I observed the insect-catcher habits of phoebes and kingbirds. Catching insects in another way were the tree swallows that regularly flew low over the water. A couple birds that did not live here, but came by for a visit, included the great blue heron and the smaller green heron. I was surprised one day to see a sora rail among the aquatic vegetation. But two others, non-ducks, stayed and added much to the season at the pond: hooded mergansers and pied-billed grebe.
The merganser pair was early to arrive. A white patch on the male’s head made it easy to see. However, when he left, their time here seemed to be over.
But one June day, she was seen paddling with a close-knit group of seven young right behind. She will stay and attempt to raise the family here; with enough food and shelter. The nest of the hooded merganser is in hollow trees and it explains why I did not see her until the precocial young hatched and went to the pond.
The story of the pied-billed grebe was a bit different. For a few weeks, I saw the grebe in the shallows. Each day that I came by, I would see this small gray-brown bird with black markings on the bill. Occasionally diving for a fish snack, it returned, never going far from this shallow-water site.
I realized what was going on. This was the male and he was waiting and watching as the female stayed on a nearby nest. The grebe chose a site where a patch of leatherleaf, cattails, irises and reeds emerged from underwater, providing shelter for the semi-floating nest. He remained among the floating leaves of water lilies as the days of incubation passed.
Finally, one day in early summer, he was gone, and so was the whole family. The hidden site was fine for a nest, but they needed more room to raise the young. In the protection of the pre-dawn, they departed.
My summertime walks here will be different now, but still much to see as we go through these months.