Abundant but declining is how the population of Horned Grebe is described. Its range has been shrinking in recent years, though its population is difficult to monitor. Horned Grebes breed primarily in Canada, as well as adjacent parts of Alaska and the northernmost coterminous U.S., and winter widely across the southern and westernmost U.S.
With legs set far back on its body, the Horned Grebe does poorly on land and requires a long running takeoff from the water to become airborne. Wide varieties of displays are used during courtship, involving posture, swimming and diving, and weed gathering.
The Horned Grebe is a small swimming and diving bird with a compact body, medium length neck, somewhat large head, and a thin, pointed bill with a whitish tip that is not always visible. Sexes similar.
Breeding birds have a blackish head with a large, bold, golden yellow patch behind each eye, a reddish neck and flanks, and dark gray upperparts. A pretty spectacular bird in breeding plumage. Sexes are similar. Photograph by Glenn Bartley.
Photograph by Glenn Bartley.
The white tip of the bill is easily seen in this photograph. Photograph by Glenn Bartley.
In early molt stage. Photograph by Glenn Bartley.
Winter birds have a black cap, white cheeks, mostly white foreneck and gray hindheck, and grayish upperparts with whitish flanks. Photograph by Glenn Bartley. Juveniles are similar to winter-plumaged birds.
Note the pale area in front of the eye. Found on most Horned Grebes in winter plumage but can be difficult to see in the field. Usually absent from similar Eared Grebe. Photograph by Glenn Bartley.
Grebes dive to escape danger and are seldom seen in flight. The white wing patches of the Horned Grebe are visible in this photo. Photograph by Greg Lavaty.
The white area on the face, just below and behind the eye, is sharply separated from the black cap. In Eared Grebes, the area has a more diffused, gray appearance. Photograph by Alan Wilson.
Photograph by Alan Wilson.
Horned vs Eared Grebe
The following image shows both Eared and Horned Grebe in winter plumage. Confusing, huh? The Horned Grebe is on the left, and the Eared Grebe is on the right.
The white tip of the bill of the Horned Grebe is not visible in this photograph. The amount of white the head and neck of the Eared Grebe is variable, and can approach that of the Horned Grebe. The bill of the Horned Grebe is heavier. Note the flat top appearance to the head of the Horned Grebe in this and the photographs above, compared to the peaked head of the Eared Grebe.
Sam is the founder of Birdzilla.com. He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.