Saturday, November 11, 2017

Las Aventuras: Arizona Grebes and Loons

One of my all time favorite movies, On Golden Pond, uses the Common Loon as a back piece to the beauty and sadness of growing old together
It's time again to cover Arizona's birding world.  This time we'll focus on the grebes and loons in this state.  While it seems unlikely that this state could even have loons here, we have to remember that these birds do migrate south into the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean. Often times these birds are found in deep bodies of water. Pacific storms are also responsible for their appearances in the state. Without further ado, here are the grebes and loons that can found this time of year in our state. 

Pied-billed Grebe are common and widespread in Arizona all year round.  They even make some fun sounds.
Beginning with the grebes. The first and most common of grebes found in Arizona is the Pied-billed Grebe.  They can be seen all year round in our natural or artificial watering holes in the state. This is one bird you don't really need to chase.  

Note the darker overall tones of the Eared Grebe, which is the default grebe for the state during our winter months and migration
So let's get to the other grebes that birders in this state like to chase.  Two similar looking grebes, the Eared and Horned Grebes can be found in many areas around the state during the winter months.  The Eared Grebe is the default grebe of the state.  BUT there are a few Horned Grebes swimming around the deeper lakes and ponds.  Learn their winter plumage to help ID these often tricky birds.  They have beautiful summer plumage but when we see them here, they usually look like these pics above and below. 

Note the overall whiter tones of the Horned Grebe.  Rare but a regular rarity during our winter months.
Another similar looking grebe species, the Western and Clark's Grebes, are also found in this state.  The Western, again, is usually the default grebe for Southern Arizona BUT if you carefully look through each and every one of those Western Grebes, you might find a Clark's Grebe in the mix:)  

Western Grebes are the default for the state.  But don't assume that they are all Western Grebes
During the winter months, Clark's Grebes usually migrate to deeper waters in concentrated numbers around the Phoenix area and up around the Lake Havasu border. Western Grebes have a weak bill with black below the eye.  Clark's Grebes have a bold bright yellow bill with their dark plumage ABOVE the eye.  They too can be difficult to ID. They even hybridize!  There is still a lingering question in the birder's world.  Are these two species really just one species?

Bright strong yellow bill and black above the eye with lighter plumage make this a good ID for the Clark's Grebe
All of these grebes can be seen in the state every year.  There is a little driving involved but overall, they are not difficult to find.  HOWEVER, the gems of all grebe gems, if such things existed, would be the Red-necked Grebe and Least Grebe.  The Least Grebe is the crowning jewel of Arizona birding.  Red-necked Grebes are common birds for the ABA listers but the Least Grebe is the one that can only be seen just slightly north of the US border. 

Rare and accidental now in the state of Arizona, the Least Grebe. THE grebe high on many birder's lists. 
Several years ago, Least Grebes were common and often found breeding in a place called Peña Blanca Lake.  They are a smaller grebe and can be predated on by bigger fish.  The fisher people of the area, and the state, decided to add Bass to the lake.  By doing so, these fish ate all the little grebes up and today, this bird is very difficult to find.  It is now uncommon to see one.  If they are spotted somewhere, it's often in a remote and far away grassland watering hole.  The grebe usually doesn't stay long and flies off.  If you do spot a Least Grebe, you are fortunate!

Common Loon
Now.  Let's talk about one of my favorite group of birds, the Loons!  "Look Norman, the loons!  The loons!!!"  Growing up in the Midwest, I remember the haunting sounds of the Common Loon on our lakes right at sunset.  It was chilling and quite beautiful.  The first time I heard that there was a Common Loon in Tucson, I nearly messed myself!  Well come to find out, during the months of November, December and January, loons can often be seen in various parts of the state.  Some stay all winter long!  Most require a scope.  There are 5 loon species and 4 of them have been seen in this state.  Let's take a look. 

Unfortunately, this Pacific Loon didn't live long.  It was caught up in storm and was forced to land in this artificial lake in Tucson.  It starved to death.  Today its' body can be seen at the UA's bird collection for record keeping. 
The Common Loon is common.  The second most common?  The Pacific Loon!  So keep your eyes open for this random visitor, especially after a good winter storm! 

Last year, I saw my first Yellow-billed Loon and Red-throated Loon.  These two birds are super rare to the state.  They are really good birds.  If you are a state lister and there's a report on one of these birds, go:)  As far as I know, there hasn't been a confirmed report of an Arctic Loon in Arizona.  But I'm sure one of these days, one will show up:)

Katherine's Landing is a real birder's treat near the border of Nevada and Arizona.  The water is deep and good for Red-necked Grebes and exotic loons:)
I have always enjoyed our searches for these birds because they usually involve water and cold windy days.  These birds aren't usually associated with Arizona but they do occur during migration.  As mentioned before, some even winter briefly in our state.  Until next time.......

Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Havasu is a great spot for Clark's Grebes and Barrow's Goldeneyes during the winter months. 

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