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Red-necked Grebe

Named after their rusty necks, these water birds can be spotted in North America and Eurasia.

Red-necked Grebes are known for the wide variety of elaborate courtship displays they participate in, although these are not as common on the breeding grounds as one might expect given that many pairs have formed prior to reaching breeding areas. Storms can produce waves which destroy many Red-necked Grebe nests and eggs.

Red-necked Grebes are very territorial, not only against other Red-necked Grebes but also against other water birds. A variety of chases and attacks are used, including an underwater attack in which the grebe swims underneath the intruder and jabs its underside with its bill.


Description of the Red-necked Grebe


The Red-necked Grebe is a large grebe with a yellowish bill, dark gray upperparts, and a white throat and cheeks. Reddish neck and breast.

Length: 18 in.  Wingspan: 24 in.

Red-necked Grebe

Photograph © Alan Wilson.


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Breast and neck become whitish in the winter.


Juveniles have black and white stripes on the face.


Lakes, ponds, and saltwater bays.

Red-necked Grebe

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


Insects and fish, as well as other aquatic life.


Forages from the surface or by diving.

Young will ride on the back of the adults.


Breeds from Alaska to eastern Canada and in parts of the northern U.S. Winters along the east and west coasts. Also occurs in Europe and Asia.

Fun Facts

Red-necked Grebes are very aggressive when on territory during the breeding season, actively chasing away potential rivals.

Great Horned Owls and mink prey on incubating adults.


“Crick-crick” calls and loud rattling or raspy notes are given on the breeding grounds.


Similar Species

  • Not easily confused with other species when in breeding plumage.Faint resemblence to Clark’s and Western Grebes in winter plumage, both have thinner bills, are larger and have red eyes.


The nest is a floating platform of plant materials.

Eggs: 4 to 5.
Color: Bluish-white.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 20-23 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Red-necked Grebe

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

At the time the Bent Life History was written, the Red-necked Grebe was called the Holboell’s Grebe.




The  extensive,  deep-water  marshes  about   the   southern  end   of Lake   Winnipegosis,  intersected  by  numerous sluggish streams or dotted  with  many  small,  shallow   ponds,  all  of  which  are  full  of fish or other forms of aquatic life , furnish ideal breeding grounds for this or  this  and  other  water fowl. The  banks  of  the  Waterhen River, which   flows  northward  from   Lake   Winnipegosis  into  Waterhen Lake,  are  broadly lined  with  many  miles of tall  golden  canes swarm­ ing  with  bird  life  of  various  kinds; countless  yellow-beaded blackbirds  are  busy  with  their nesting in  the  densest  canes or clinging to tree tops of the swaying stalks and pouring out their  ceaseless chatter; Franklin’s gulls  or black  terns  are  flying  overhead with  gentle  notes of  protest; various  species of  ducks  are  swimming in  the  creeks  and pond  holes;  and  the  graceful western  grebes  glide  in and  out among e  canes  where  their   nests  are  hidden.   Here   the  shy  Holboell’s greebe breeds in abundance, probably more abundantly than  anywhere se  throughout its  extensive range; though it  is  so  seldom  seen that one does not  realize  how common  it is until  a systematic search is made for  nests.   Waterhen River  and  the  lake  into  which  it flows are said to have  been so named  on account  of the  abundance there  of this  species, although the  name  “waterhen,” or  “poule  d’eau,” is applied  to any of  the grebes or coots.

Throughout the month of June, 1913, we found a great many nests of  this  grebe  in  various  localities  in  this  region.  Al­ though it frequented  the vicinity of the same swamps, in which the western grebes and horned grebes were breeding, we did not find any nests of  Holbrell’s  grebe  actually in the  canes  (Phragmites   com­munis).  All  of the  nests we found  were in  more open situations and were more or less widely scattered.    On June 7 we found, what might almost be called a colony, seven nests, in an extensive tract  of short,  dead,  broken-down flags and  reeds which extended  out  into the lake for a hundred  yards or more near the entrance to the river. As the water was 3 or 4 feet deep, I had to work from a canoe and experienced some difficulty in photographing the nests; for, with the tripod  standing in  the  water,  the  camera  was but  little  above the surface.   Even in such an open situation  the nests were surprisingly inconspicuous and it required the practised eye of my guide to locate most of them.-  They  were generally  placed where the broken-down reeds (Scirpus  lacustris)  were thickest  and  often  where they  were so matted together that it was difficult to push a canoe through  them. They  were low, flat, carelessly built  structures,  raised  but  slightly above the surface,  in  which the  eggs were wet and  almost  awash, and  were made  of  dead  and  rotten  reeds and  flags, water  mosses, algae  and  other  drift   rubbish.   The  eggs  were usually  wholly  or partially  covered with  the  nesting  material.    During  several  visits to this locality I saw but one Holboell’s grebe near its nest and only occasionally in the  distance;  though  I lay  in  wait  for  them  for  a long time at some little distance in the canes.

It is certainly  one of the shyest of the water  birds.   Its  hearing must  be very  acute;  for  only  rarely  could  I surprise  one in  the marshes, when it would disappear  instantly.    What  few birds I saw were generally swimming at a distance, singly or in pairs,  often far out  on the  lake,  where they  always  dove long  before  I could get within  gunshot  range.   Only  once did  I succeed in surprising  one on its  nest  and  get  a fleeting glimpse.   Mr. Herbert  K. Job  had located a nest in a little  cove on a nearby  pond;  we approached  it cautiously, paddling  silently around  a little  point and into the cove; we were just in time to see the grebe stand  up in the  nest, hastily attempt  to cover the eggs, glide off into the water, and disappear  in the reeds so quickly that we could hardly  realize what had happened. This was a larger, better built, and probably a more typical nest than those described above;  it  was floating  in  water  about  3 feet  deep and anchored near the edge of growing flags (Typha latifolia)   and reeds  (Scirpus  lacustris); it  measured  24 inches in  diameter,  the inner cavity was 6 inches across and slightly  hollowed, and the rim was built up 2 or 3 inches above the water;  it was made principally of dead reeds and flags, with a few green stems of the same, matted together  with  a  mass  of  algae  and  water  mosses;  it  was lined  with well-rotted  flags.

Throughout  the  greater portion of  its  breeding range  the  Holboell’s grebe is a widely  scattered, solitary species.   It breeds  to some extent in the sloughs  and  marshes  of the  northern plains and  prairie regions,  but  is  more  universally common  in  the  marshy lakes  and in the timbered regions of northern Canada, where one or two pairs only  are  usually  found  in  each  of  the smaller lakes.

Dr.  Joseph Grinnell (1900)  found  this  grebe  breeding quite  com­ only in the delta  of the Kowak  River, Alaska, in June, 1899, where early  every  pond  or  lake  was  the  home  of  a single   pair.   He  describes as follows.

We had just  moored  our  steamer to  the river bank and I  was  pushing my way  among  the  willows   back toward a  strip of  spruces when  I was  startled a series of  most  lugubrious cries  from  directly in front of  us.

After a  moment’s hesitation I  concluded it must  be  some  species  of  loon, although I had never heard such a note before. Advancing as quietly as  possible I cam upon a small lake which was almost surrounded by spruces and margined on  my  side  with   willows. I could  see  nothing on  the  surface for some minutes.   A  loon  would   surely  have   shown   himself   during  that  time. Suddenly the  curious cries  broke  forth again, and  there within 20 yards of  me, in a  thin   patch of  grass growing near  the  shore, were  two  grebes  resting  on the   water.  They  both  took  part in  the  ” song,”  though the  voice  of  one  was notably  weaker than   that of  the  other.  One  of  the  birds   would  start with  a long  wail  and  then  the  other would  chime  in  with  a similar note,  both  winding pup with  a series of quavering cries  very  much  like  the  repeated whinnies of  a horse.   During these  vocal  demonstrations the  neck  would  be thrown forward and the  head  and  bill tilted upward at an angle  of 45°.   During the  performance the  birds  were  nearly facing each  other, but  at the  conclusion one,  presumably the male,  would  slowly  swim  around the  other.  A slight movement  on  my part spoiled  this interesting scene,  for  both  birds  instantly disappeared beneath the water, leaving scarcely a  ripple.  Finally I barely  discerned the  head  and  neck of one near  a  snag  in  the  dark reflection of the  opposite shore.

He  says  of  its  nest:

“The  nest  consisted of  a floating mass  of sodden  marsh grass, a  foot  in diam­eter. It was  anchored among  standing grass in  about 2 feet  of  water.  It was 20  feet  from  the  shore on one side  and  about  the  same  distance from  the  edge of the  ice, which  still existed in a large floe in the  center of the  lake.  The  top of  this  raft of  dead  grass presented a  saucer-shaped depression, which   was  2 inches  above  the  surface of  the  surrounding water.   The  eggs  lay  wholly  un­ covered  and  could  be plainly seen  from  shore.”

Mr. P.M. Sillowat (1902) found  a small  colony  of  Holboell’s grebes  in  Swan  Lake,  Montana, where  he  located  five  pairs of  the birds  and  collected  seven sets of eggs on dates  ranging from  June 4 to 20, 1902.   The  nests  were located  in  an  extensive growth of  buck brush  and  reeds  which  lined  the  margin of  the  lake  and  covered  a marshy  area  of  about  a square  mile.  Most  of the  nests  were  placed among the reeds and made of the usual materials. Two of the nests were among the back brush, where the water was over 2 feet deep; in one “the material  was piled upon coarse twigs of buck brush, appar­ently brought up from  the  bottom “; the  other “was made on  de­ pressed branches of the bushes, a large, strong mass of decayed reeds with some new material  intermingled in the top.”

Mr. Edmonde  S. Currier   (1904)  refers  to a colony of from  6 to 10 pairs  which he found  breeding  in Leech Lake, Minnesota, in 1902 and 1903.

“One nest was high and dry on a muskrat  house–a hollow In the side of the house, and  about  10  inches above  the  water. The  muskrat house  was  in a patch  of tall  canes, growing  in deep, open water,  forming  a small  island.   The other  nests  were similar  in situation, style  of architecture, and  material  used. They  varied  only in size, and  this  depended  upon the  time  the  birds  had  been laying.   Nests containing  only one egg were simply irregular piles or  rafts of floating  flags  soft  and  rotting,  with  the  egg  often  awash  and  covered  with foam.  In  more advanced  sets  the  nests formed  quite  a mass of material, with a deep cup above water  line. No birds were seen on the nests, or leaving  them, but  In 1902 I saw  one swimming  away  from  a  patch  of canes  in  open  water that  contained  a nest.

The Holboell’s grebe raises only one brood during  the sea­ son, but if  the  nest is robbed a second set of eggs is promptly  laid. The set generally  consists of f our or five eggs;  sometimes three  are considered  enough;  six eggs  are occasionally  laid  and  rarely  seven or  even eight.    The  eggs resemble closely those of  other  grebes in general  appearance and >ary greatly  in size, so that  it is not always easy to identify  them.   In shape they vary  from  nearly  ” ovate” to “elliptical oval,” “elongate ovate”  or to  nearly  “fusiform.”

The  color of  the  clean, freshly-laid egg  varies  from  pale  bluish white to “cartridge buff,” but  the color, which is never quite  pure, soon  becomes partly  or  wholly  obscured  by  muddy,  dirty,   nest­ stains  and the egg is often  plastered over with mud and bits of nest material, giving it a dark  mottled  appearance.    Much of this  can be washed off, but the stains  seem to be indelible.

The  measurements  of  60  eggs,  in  the  United   States   National Museum, average 53.7 by  34.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 64.5 by 37.5, 49 by 33, and 50.5 by 30 millimeters.

The period of incubation  proved to be 22 or 23 days for eggs of this species which we hatched out in our incubators.

The young are very precocious and can dive and swim instinctively soon after they have hatched. As soon as they are able to feed and to swim about they may be seen riding  in safety  on their  mother’s  back as she swims about the lake, clinging  to her plumage when she dives and  coming  to  the  surface  with  her, as if  nothing  had  happened. It is said  that  the mother  bird  turns  her  head and  feeds  the young while riding  on her back.   Then soon learn  to dive and to feed them­selves on small  fish, insects,  aquatic  worms, and  vegetable  matter.

The  downy   young   show  considerable variation in color patterns, but in a general way they  may be described  as practically­ black above when first hatched,  fading to blackish  brown  or brown as the chick increases in size; this color includes the sides crissum, leaving only the belly pure  white;  the  head  and  neck broadly   and   clearly   striped,  longitudinally,  with   black   and white; the chin and throat are often spotted  with black but are some­ are sometimes clear  white.   There  is usually  a distinct  white  V on the top of e head, starting on the forehead,  above a superciliary black stripe which usually includes the eyes, and terminating in a broad white stripes in the sides of the neck;  there  is also a median  white  stripe or spot on the crown and the back is, more or less distinctly, marked with four long  stripes of  dull   white or grayish. The  lighter stripes, especially  on the head  and  neck are often  tinged  with  buffy pink.   This  downy  covering  is worn  until  the  young  bird  is more two-thirds grown, the colors becoming duller above and grayer below.  The first  real  plumage  is acquired  early  in September, dark above and  white  below, as in  the  adult,  but  signs  of youth  are  re­tained in the head and  neck, both of which are  more or less striped with  black  and  white  on  the  sides;   the  neck  is  also  more  or  less rufous.   I have a specimen in this  plumage  taken  November 15, but have other  specimens  taken  in  November  and  December,  apparently  young  birds,  which  have lost  all  traces  of  the stripes and  the rufous neck.   The stripes always disappear during the  fall  or early winter,  but  the  reddish  neck is often  retained  until  the  young  bird acquires its first  nuptial plumage.    This  closely resembles the  adult nuptial  plumage  but the colors are duller  and  not so pure;  the chin and throat are whiter,  the red of the neck is mottled  with  dusky, the wn  is  browner,  fading gradually into  the  mottled   cheeks;  the sharply  defined  color  pattern of  the  head,  so  conspicuous  in  the adult,  is very much obscured in the young  birds.   At  the  first  post­ nuptial molt, when the bird is a little more than a year old, I tnink that  old and  young  birds  become indistinguishable, although am not sure that  another  year  is not  required  to accomplish  this. The  postnuptial or  summer  moult is  complete  and  is  prolonged through August  and  September.   The  adult  fall  plumage  is charac­terized mainly  by the absence of red which entirely  disappears from the neck and  breast  and  is replaced  by a white  breast  and  a dusky neck; the pale gray  of the chin, throat, and cheeks is sharply defined against  the  dusky  neck, as it is against  the  red  neck in  the spring; young birds have no such sharp  line of demarcation; the crown is also darker  than  in  young  birds.    I have  seen one specimen,  No. 15994 in  the  collection of Dr. Jonathan Dwight, in  nearly full nuptial plumage, collected November 25, but  I can only regard this as an exceptional  case of retarded  or suspended moult.  A partial prenup­tial  moult occurs early  in  the spring involving  mainly  the  plumage of the head and neck and producing  the clearly defined black crown, gray cheeks, chin and throat and the brilliant red neck and breast of the nuptial plumage.  I have seen specimens in which this moult was complete  before the end of  February  and  others  in  full   winter plumage in March;  I think  the moult  usually occurs in April.

Holboell’s grebe feeds to some extent  on small fish or min­nows which it obtains by diving, but its food consists largely of other things  and it can live perfectly  well in lakes where there  are no fish at all.   In  the lakes of Manitoba  it lives largely  on crawfish, ambly­stomae,  and  aquatic  insects;  its  bill  of  fare  also  includes various aquatic worms,  insects,  and  their  larvae,  small  crustaceans,  fresh water  mollusks, tadpoles,  and some vegetable  substances.  An adult bird  caught  on the ice near  my home was fed  on small  live shiners which it ate readily.

Mr. Robert  J. Sim  (1904), who made a care­ful  study  of a captive  Holboell’s grebe, gives the  following  account of its feeding  habits:

“On the  second  day  I placed  a  4-inch  wild  fish  (shiner1) in  a dish  filled  with water.  This was set  on .the floor  in front of the  bird.    He  gave  the  fish a slight poke  whereupon it swam  around  violently.   Making a  quick  thrust he  caught it,  grasping it crosswise with   the   bill-not  impalling it.  The  fish  then   went through a course of  pinching from  head  to  tail, being  hitched along  from  side to side  in the  bill.    It was  then  turned about and  gulped  down  head  first.    Later in  the  day  three out  of four  strips of  raw  whitefish  were  eaten, each  about   the size of a man’s finger.    These the  grebe  bruised and  shook  until small fragments flew  several feet  around.   At  this  time  of  the  year  live  food  was  scarce, but we succeeded in finding a few  small  aquatic animals.  By  the  27th  of  February the  grebe   had  eaten-all  voluntarily-the following: 10  live  goldfish   (2  to  5 inches  long), 2 pieces  raw  steak  (taken from  water), 1 4-inch  wild  fish,  2 large tadpoles, and  7 medium  sized  dragon-fly larve.

In  swallowing the  large  goldfishes the   bird’s jaws  seemed   to  be  distended laterally, and  he gulped  so violently that the  back  of  his  head  struck his  back with   a  hollow  ” tunking” sound.     This operation apparently  jarred  the   fish past  the sticking point.    When  very  hungry the  grebe  swallowed the fishes alive. Of  the  crawfishes offered  him  only  the  small  or  soft  ones  were  eaten, and  no great  relish  was  shown.     Earthworms,  when   their season   came,   were   eaten with  avidity, but  raw  beefsteak (lean)  was  the  principal article of  diet   with the  bird  during his  stay with  us.”

The  stomach  of  this  bird  is sometimes  wholly  or  partially  filled with feathers.

In flight  Holboell’s  grebe  is easily  recognized  in  any plumage;  its size is distinctive, being  halfway  between a loon  and one of the smaller  grebes;  in the full  nuptial plumage  the red  neck and  gray  cheeks are  conspicuous  if  the  bird  is near  enough  to see them, or at a greater  distance  the pure  white under  parts  and  white wing patches show up in marked  contrast  to the black upper  parts; young  birds  in  the  autumn  can  be recognized  by  their  size, shape, and white wing patches, as the horned  grebes are much smaller  and the loons have no white in the wings.   Its general  appearance is de­cidedly  loon-like, with  its  long  neck stretched  out  in  front and  its large  feet held together  straight out behind to serve as a rudder  for a tailless  bird.    It can  not  rise  off the  ground  or  ice at  all  and  is frequently  caught in consequence.  It can rise readily  from the water, like  a duck,  but  not  without  considerable  pattering along  the  sur­face,  beating  it  with  wings  and  feet.    When  well  under  way  its flight  is swift,  strong,  direct,  and  well sustained.    When  migrating along the Atlantic coast I have always seen it flying singly  and  not more than  a few feet above the water.

It is a strong  and rapid  swimmer and like all of its tribe  a splen­did  diver.   It usually  prefers to escape by swimming  rapidly away if  the enemy is not too near,  but, in  the latter case, it dives like  a flash, so quickly that  it is useless to try to shoot one if it is watching. When  undisturbed  and  not  hurried   it makes  a  graceful   curving plunge, leaving  the water  entirely  and going straight down with  its wings closed;  probably  it can  dive to  a greater  depth  in  this  way than  in any other.    It can also sink gradually downward  until  only its  head  is above water  or  go swimming  off among  the  reeds  with only its bill and eyes showing.    When  really  alarmed  it  goes under water  with astonishing rapidity, so quickly that  we can not see how it  is done,  but  it is  probably  accomplished  by  a sudden  kick  and forward dive.

Mr. Aretas  A. Saunders writes me that  he watched a pair  of these birds- diving  and  evidently  feeding  under  water.   I timed  them  to see how long they stayed   under,  and,  after several   observations of  both  birds,  found   the  time to be almost  uniformly  55 seconds in every  case.   The  time  was  so exact  that I could tell when a bird  dove just  when to expect  it  to reappear.

Mr. Sim  (1904), in describing  the habits  of his captive  bird, says:

“In  ordinary swimming  the  feet  struck  out  alternately.   The  tarsi   extended downward  and  outward.   In  diving  the  bird  was  not  observed  to  spring  for­ ward  in  the  common grebe  manner,  but  rather let  himself  down  very  quickly as  though  drawing   his  head  back  through   a  hole.   When  it  was  below  the surface   I could  scarcely  realize  that   the  creature before  me  was  a  bird,  so slender  was he and  so swiftly  did  he dart about  and  shoot  through  the  tangle of aquatic vegetation.  It was  amazing.  The  wings  were  entirely   covered  by the  feathers and  the  feet  struck  out  simultaneously at  the  sides,  far  astern. Their  movements could scarcely’ be followed.

Mr. Alvin R. Cahn  (1912), who had an excellent opportunity to study this species at close range  through  an opening in the  ice of Cayuga Lake, describes its movements under water as follows:

“The  water  was clear,  and  the  bird could be seen  plainly, shooting and  zig­-zagging about, midway between the surface  and the bottom. While swimming under water, the neck is extended to Its utmost, and  both legs and  wings are used. With  neck outstretched, the bird offers the least possible resistance  to the water, there  being a  smooth and gradual transition from the tip of the slender bill to the middle of the back, the widest part  of the body. The speed which it developed under water is marvelous,  at  times it  being almost impos­sible to follow Its movements, which were so rapid that the bird appeared  more like a large, gray fish darting  about.  When coming to the surface the bill and head appeared  slowly, when a glimpse of the observer caused It to dive again. In diving, even though  the body was under  water,  the bill went down first, so that it really dove instead of sinking quietly.”

On its breeding grounds, Holboell’s grebe is often seen swimming about in pairs in marshy ponds or on the lakes. When undisturbed it  swims quite buoyantly with  its  head drawn  down on its  folded neck, much as a duck swims, occasionally rolling  over on its side to wash and preen its plumage or pointing its bill up in the air to give its loud weird call. But on the slightest  scent of danger it sinks until its tail is below the surface, its back is awash, and its head is stretched up to watch and listen as it swims rapidly  away. Should a human being approach  within  a hundred  yards  of  the  shy creature,  it  is gone for good; if on a large lake, it swims quickly away under water and appears again only in the dim distance; if near a marsh, it seeks shelter in the reeds and does not show itself again.   Human intimacy is not encouraged by this vanishing water sprite.

One beautiful  moonlight night  in June,  as we lay at anchor near some Manitoba marshes, I had a good chance to study the love song of this interesting  bird.  The  night  was calm and  the  mosquitoes made sleep impossible, as we lay rolled in our blankets on the deck of our little  boat, listening  to the varied voices of the marsh. The activities  of life  in  the  marshes do not  wholly cease at sundown; birds are very active and  noisy during  the hours of twilight  or all night  long  when there  is  bright  moonlight;  even on  dark  nights hardly  an hour passes without some vocal signs of life.   This  night seemed particularly favorable,  quiet and cool after  a long hot day. The  Franklin’s gulls and  black terns  which were feeding  over the marshes in the cool of the evening kept up their restless beating long after  it seemed possible for them to see their insect prey.  The chat­tering of bronzed grackles and Brewer’s and red-winged blackbirds, as well as the rhythmic  chants of the yellowheads quieted down at dusk;  but their  notes were frequently  heard  all through the  night as the birds awoke to change their positions on their  insecure roosts in the reeds. The long rolling diminuendo call of the sora rails and the horse gutteral croaks and  grunts  of the coots, with many  varia­tions,  furnished the  necessary  accompaniment  to  the  chorus.   But the  real  striking features  of  the  concert,  the  solo  parts,  were  the weird cries of the  Holbcell’s grebes, heard  only at  infrequent inter­vals.   The  performance begins  with.  a  series  of  loon-like  wailing cries, loud  and  piercing  at  first,  and  then  runs  off into  a series of short,  plaintive,  vibrating wails, “ah-ooo, ah-ooo, ah-ooo, ah-ah-ah­ ah-ah;” sometimes it  ends  in  a  more  staccato,  chattering trill   and might   be  indicated   thus: “whaaa, whaaa,  whaaa,  whaaa,  whaaa, chitter-r-r-r-r-r-r.”   There  is  considerable  variation  in  the  length and form of the song in different  individuals.  The love song of the Holboell’s grebe may be heard  at  any time during the day or night, but it is indulged  in  more freely  in the  early  morning  and  toward the dusk of evening.

Mrs. Lizzie  T. Burt  described  the  notes of  an  adult  bird,  which was captured  on the ice near my home on February 14, 1913, as loud trumpetings, suggesting  the  cries  of  the  loon  and  resembling  the sound made by what is known as a Gabriel’s  horn on an automobile. This grebe has several other notes, one of which is aptly  described by Mr. Silloway  (1902), as follows:

“It is  a  coarse,  prolonged  nasal  quonk,  the  nasal  quality   being  most  pro­nounced,  the  intonation  being  very  suggestive   of  the  braying   of  a  donkey. Indeed,  the  natives  call  this  grebe  the  “jack driver,”   and  anyone  familiar with  the  nasal  volume of  tone  produced  by Holbcell’s  will  readily  admit  the appropriateness of the popular  name.”

Mr. W. L. Dawson  (1909) refers to its notes as follows:

“Owing to  the furtive habits  of the  various  swamp  dwellers,  It is often  diffi­ cult  to  distinguish  notes,  but  I have  attributed  a  harshly   raucous  cawack, aunoack  caawwrrack   heard   in  June  upon  the  Pend  d’Oreille   River   to  this species.   It is generally  similar  to the yark  of the horned  grebe but has several times the volume.”

Mr.  Allan  Brooks  (1903)  says  that  in  British   Columbia,  where both  species  are  abundant,  the  Holboell’s grebe  “wages  incessant war  upon” the  horned  grebe, “the large  birds  diving  and  coming up beneath the smaller  ones time and again  to the terror  of the poor little  fellows, who often desert their  nests in consequence.”   It must be a formidable foe with  such  a sharp  and  powerful  beak.   When once it  has  passed the  downy  young  stage  it  must  be well able to defend itself and escape from its enemies.

During the  migrations I have  always  found  this  grebe to be a solitary  species, but,  according  to  others,  it  seems to  be more or  less  gregarious   at  times.   Mr.  John  Macoun (1909)  speaks  of “large flocks seen on Prince  Edward Island, August  7, 1888.”   On the  Pacific  coast it  more often  congregates  in  flocks on the  migra­tions  and  during the  winter,  though  I doubt  if  it  actually  flies in flocks.   In its winter quarters  on the coast of Washington  Mr. W. L. Dawson  (1909) associates this  species with  the “characteristic bird population  which stretches  along at  just a little  more than  gunshot range  from  shore,”  when he finds it  “almost  invariably numbered with  this  shifting, distrustful company  of sea fowl, pigeon  guille­mots, buffleheads, mergansers, and scoters.’

All through  the fall,  winter, and spring  these grebes are fairly  common on the  New England  coast, where they may be seen riding  the waves just off shore, feeding in the shoals just beyond the breakers, in company with loons, horned grebes, golden-eyes, scoters, and red-breasted  mergansers.   It is interesting to watch them with a powerful  glass as they dive through  the breakers, where their  move­ments can sometimes be plainly  seen through  the face of an incom­ing wave.

As Holboell’s grebe is inclined to winter  somewhat in large inland lakes,  it  is  sometimes caught  by  the  freezing  of  lakes  which  are usually open.   Mr. Alvin R. Cahn  (1912) has published the following account of his experience with it on Cayuga Lake, New York, in Feb­ruary, 1912:

“The freezing  of Cayuga  Lake  offered a  rare  opportunity for  a study  of this most  interesting and  apparently  little known  bird. Until  the  present   time, the Holboell’s grebe has been considered only a rare visitant  at  the southern end of the  lake, one or  two  being  recorded  almost  every  winter. It has  proved, however, to be the predominant grebe during  this  winter,  28 Individuals  having been taken. The  reason  of  Its  unprecedented  abundance  here  ls  undoubtedly to  be found  in  the  six  weeks of extremely  cold weather,  and  the  consequent closure of waters  in other  regions.,The sudden  closing of the lake’s  surface in one night left  these  birds  in an absolutely  helpless condition, since open water is a necessity for taking flight in this group of birds, Holboell’s grebe being no exception to the rule.   As a result, 11 beautiful  specimens were picked up alive from  the  ice in perfectly  good physical  condition. If approached  while sitting on the ice, these birds made no attempt  to escape. They would strike at the outstretched hand, and  would emit calls very loon-like in general  quality. Once the bird alights upon the ice, it is unable to take flight, and must await starva­tion or other  tragic  end.  At best, all It can do is to flap Its wings and possibly scrape along over the ice a few feet. The position of the legs, together  with  the smooth surface  of the ice, rendered  these efforts at  locomotion entirely  futile.”

A bird  (referred to above) was caught on the ice near Taunton, Massachusetts, on February 14, 1913; it  would undoubtedly  have starved  to death, as it  was unable to rise off the ice. On December 27, 1909, a bird  was brought  to me which  was caught  in  a yard  in the city  of Taunton,  having  been bewildered  by a thick  snowstorm and  become exhausted. There  are  numerous  other  similar  records.

Egg dates
-North Dakota  and Minnesota: 23 records, May 23 to July 16; 12 records, May 31to June 13.    Manitoba: 17 records, May 27 to  August  1; 8  records,  June   2 to  11.   British Columbia  and Washington: 9  records,  May  13  to  July  1; 5  records,  May  29 to June  13.   Alberta: 8 records,  May  24 to  June  21;  4 records,  June 3 to 17.

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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