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Western Grebe Identification

Western Grebe side view

Western Grebe  —  Length: 25 inches,  Wing span: 24 inches

Once considered the same species as Clark’s Grebe but now classified separately, the boldly patterned, black and white Western Grebe breeds over a large portion of western North America but winters primarily along the West Coast. Migratory movements occur at night, and Western Grebes usually travel in flocks.

Western Grebes are capable divers and propel themselves underwater with their feet. Most dives last about half a minute. Weather is one major threat to Western Grebes, and can cause significant destruction of nests through storm generated wave action. Birds can also be frozen into lakes when surface water freezes overnight.

The Western Grebe has black upperparts, hindneck, and crown, and white underparts. It has a pointed, greenish-yellow bill and red eyes. The eyes are usually enclosed by a black area of feathers extending down from the crown and forehead.

Western Grebe side view

Dirty green color to the bill in this photograph. Photograph © Alan Wilson.

Western Grebe

Check, neck and belly pure white.  Red eye.  Photograph © Alan Wilson.

Western Grebe dancing

Both Western and Clark’s Grebe are famous for their running dances during courtship. Photograph © Elaine Wilson.

Western Grebe

Note the black of the crown of the head extends below the eye. In non-breeding birds (generally September to February) the amount of black surrounding the eye of the Western Grebe recedes. The Western and Clark’s are then very similar, distinguished by the color of the bill. Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Western Grebe

The color of the bill and the amount of black surrounding the eye are visible at a distance, if the light is good. Poor light and birds bouncing in the waves can provide a challenge. Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Western and Clark's Grebe

This photo shows both Clark’s Grebe (left) and the Western Grebe on the right. Note the differences in the color of the bill, sometines hard to distinguish when seen in poor light. In non-breeding plumage the black below the eye recedes, making the face pattern almost identical. Photograph © Tom Grey.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of 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.

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