The Eared Grebe is a small diving bird about 12 ½” long. It is the most abundant grebe found in the world. We first found Eared Grebes at Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach, California. These are fun birds to watch as they dive and forage for food since Bolsa Chica’s clear water allows you to see clear to the bottom. Eared Grebes have a large powder puff of feathers that never seem to get wet!
Eared Grebes are smaller than Horned Grebes. In the winter, the Eared Grebe has a thin neck, a dark back and black neck with a white throat patch. The head is crested above the eye and has a dark cap that extends a little below eye level. It has a white crescent-shaped patch on the side of the head just behind the ear which is not clearly defined. It also has a vertical forehead with a slightly upturned slender bill. Its rounded back and rump ride high up in the water, exposing its fluffy feathers under the tail. The legs are set far back on its body which makes walking on land almost impossible. The sexes are similar in appearance.
During breeding season an amazing transformation takes place. Both adults don long golden ear feathers that fan out behind their red eyes. The back and flanks take on a chestnut color, and the head and neck are black. They have small wings. In flight, white edges show on the edge of the wing. Juveniles are buff-gray in color with white chins.
Range and Habitat
The Eared Grebe is found in ponds, marshy lakes, oceans and bays. It is rare in eastern North America. It can be found wintering mostly on the Pacific and Gulf coast. It is rarely found on the Atlantic coast. It breeds from British Columbia and Manitoba to the Dakotas and south to California, New Mexico and Texas.
The Eared Grebe dives mostly for invertebrates and small crustaceans, but it will eat fish, brine shrimp, brine flies, larvae, and insects. It forages for food both on the surface of the water, and by diving. It propels itself underwater with its feet and has lobes on its toes instead of webbing. It is a gregarious bird, gathering in large flocks during the winter. Its call is a mellow “poo-eep”, a frog-like peeping, or a rising whistle which is repeated. On cold mornings, you might find an Eared Grebe sunbathing by raising its rump toward the sun and exposing it’s under parts to the sun. Eared Grebes only migrate at night. They have a late migration due to their habit of stopping over at saline lakes like the Great Salt Lake in Utah or Mono Lake in California. Here they rest, molt and gain weight for migration. These grebes spend 9-10 months out of the year flightless because of the flight,rest, weight-gain cycle. In flight, their wings beat constantly and their feet trail behind their tails.
Breeding and Nesting
Eared Grebes are monogamous and have elaborate courtship displays. Courtship begins during spring migration. They display by treading water while facing each other. They rise up out of the water, breast to breast, shake their heads and call to each other. Eared Grebes are colonial nesters. The nest is made of floating vegetation and mud, anchored to reeds in a fresh water lake. The female lays 4-5 eggs. Incubation is carried out by both parents for 20-22 days. After hatching, the young ride on their parent’s backs for the first two weeks.