Clark’s Grebe

Aechmophorus clarkii
Range Map

It was long thought the Clark’s Grebe was a pale morph of the Western Grebe, which it resembles in size, range, and behavior. Studies during the 1980s led science to recognise these as separate species. Looking carefully at their black crests, the Western’s extend into or even below the eyeline, while the Clark’s crest sits higher and passes above the eye. The bill color of the Clark’s is more yellow than the Western’s and there is a hint of upturning in the bill shape.

Clark’s Grebes range over most of the western USA in summer, and most migrate to the Pacific coast come winter. On both the winter and summer grounds, they share company with their cousins, the Western Grebes. Some observers have noted that when seen off the shores of the lakes or coastal waters with their cousins, the Clark’s Grebes usually stay further from the shoreline than the Western Grebes. This may be because the Clark’s prefer to forage in deeper water than the Westerns. Early scientists believed that there was interbreeding between the two species, but modern studies discount this conclusion.

Modern science recognises two subspecies of Clark’s Grebe. Taxonomists separate them based on their size and wing length:

  • A. c. transitionalis breeds from southwestern Canada south through the western USA to northern Baja California (Mexico). They spend their winters along the coast in the southern part of their breeding range,
  • A. c. clarkii lives on the Mexican Plateau from northern Chihuahua to Guerrero, and Nayarit. A. c. clarkii is the smaller of the two subspecies, and is nonmigratory.

It is exciting to watch either of these species (Western or Clarke’s) perform their water dance. This is sometimes called “rushing”. The ritual is a pair bonding exercise, where mated pairs stand up and run on the water’s surface for as much as 60-70 feet before dropping back to their bellies to glide on the surface.

I’ve enjoyed meeting these elegant birds near my home in southern California, where we can find them year-round. I’ve also been able to find them in Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

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