Western Grebe

Aechmophorus occidentalis
Range Map

In earlier times and in some places, we knew the Western Grebe as “dabchick”, “swan grebe” and “swan-necked grebe”. It was long thought the Clark’s Grebe was a smaller, 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 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 yellower than the Western’s, and there is a slight upturn to their bill shape. When we find these two grebe species near each other, the Western Grebes seem to forage nearer the shoreline than their cousins. Observers believe this is because the Clark’s Grebes prefer finding their food in deeper water.

Science recognises two subspecies of Western Grebes:

  • A. o. occidentalis is larger and darker, and breeds from southwestern Canada through the western USA east to the Great Lakes region in the north, and west of the Great Plains, south to Baja California (Mexico). They spend winters along the coast from British Columbia to Baja California, west-central Mexico, and the deserts of the southwestern USA.
  • A. o. ephemeralis is smaller and paler, and lives on the Mexican Plateau from Chihuahua south to the Valley of Mexico.

Like their cousins, the Clark’s Grebes, these birds pair bond by performing a water dance, sometimes called rushing.

Most of my encounters with Western Grebes have been in southern California, but I’ve enjoyed meeting them in Oregon and Utah. Whenever I hear their free-free calls from across the water, it brings a smile to my face.

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