Red Necked Grebe

Red Necked Grebe, Vancouver Island, BC
Red Necked Grebe, Vancouver Island, BC

Podiceps grisegena, it is more commonly known as the Red Necked Grebe is a migratory aquatic bird found on Vancouver Island during the winter months. Its wintering habitat is largely restricted to inland coastal shores along the southern coast of BC. Red-Necked Grebes prefer northern shallow bodies of freshwater such as lakes, marshes, or fish-ponds as breeding sites.

The Red Necked Grebe during the winter months is quite drab and mostly grey. During the breeding season though, it becomes a beautiful bird with a distinctive red neck plumage, black cap, and bright grey face from which its name was derived. During the breeding season, it has an elaborate courtship display. Once paired, they will build a nest from water plants on top of floating vegetation in a shallow lake or bog.

Like all grebes, the Red-Necked is a wonderful swimmer and a fast diver, they respond to danger by diving rather than flying away. The feet are positioned far back on the body, near the tail, this makes the bird ungainly on land. It dives for fish. All Grebes will swallow their own feathers, possibly to protect the digestive system from fish bones.

Red Necked Grebe, Vancouver Island, BC
Red Necked Grebe, Vancouver Island, BC, photo by Bud Logan

The winter plumage of the Red-Necked Grebe is duskier than that of other grebes.  Its black cap is mostly gone and merges into the grey face, and a pale crescent that curves around the rear of the face contrasts with the rest of the head. The front of the neck is light grey, and the hind neck is a darker grey. Although the red-necked grebe is unmistakable in breeding plumage, it is less distinctive in winter and can be confused with similar species.

The sexes are similar in appearance, although the male tends to be a bit heavier than the female. Chicks have a striped head and breast, and older juveniles have a striped face, beginnings of the black cap, pale red neck, and extensive yellow on the bill.

Red-necked grebes usually nest as isolated pairs with more than 50 m between neighboring nests, although semi-colonial nesting may occur in suitable sites. Semi-colonial breeding is more likely to occur in prime locations, such as large floating mats of vegetation with no connection to the shoreline. Such sites, safe from most predators and large enough to provide some wind and wave protection, have grebes nesting much closer than shoreline breeders, down to 10 m. Pairs nesting in these colonies produces larger clutches of eggs, which hatch earlier in the season and result in larger broods. The territory is defended with various threat displays, including wing-spreading, hunching, and bill-thrusting, pairs breeding in colonies are more aggressive, less likely to leave the nest unguarded, and show a greater tendency to move out of sight of the colony when not incubating. Breeding is often in loose association with gulls or other colonial waterbirds.

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