2015-01-08 / Nature

Horned Grebe Displays Beautiful Plumage During Season

By Jack Kelly


A Horned Grebe off the shore of Sandy Point Beach, in Portsmouth. (Photo by Jack Kelly) A Horned Grebe off the shore of Sandy Point Beach, in Portsmouth. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

While Rhode Island winters can be brutal with frigid cold temperatures, snow and biting winds, opportunities for adventure and discovery await the hardy and the curious across many regions of Aquidneck Island. The season brings many waterfowl, seabirds, songbirds and raptors to wintering grounds in habitats throughout Newport County. Among the seasonal waterfowl is an intriguing family of birds known as grebes.

Grebes represent an ancient group of species that can be traced to South America, where fossilized remains have been discovered dating back millions of years. Three species may be found wintering in local waters on a regular basis, including the Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe and the diminutive Pied-billed Grebe. Some grebe populations have seen declines in recent years due to pollution, development and loss of habitat.


The spring time colorful plumage of a Horned Grebe varies greatly from its darker winter coloring. The spring time colorful plumage of a Horned Grebe varies greatly from its darker winter coloring. The most frequent breed in our area is the Horned Grebe. Like most grebes, it has toes that are lobed rather than webbed, and a fluffy, almost fur-like plumage in the flanks and undertail. It is a diving bird, with a wingspan of 18 inches and a body length of 14 inches, and feeds on small fish, crustaceans, and vegetation along our ocean shores, coastal bays, and rivers.

The winter, non-breeding plumage of this bird consists of a dark head, pale loral spot in front of bright red eyes, a pale tipped bill, mostly-white sides and neck, and a black nape and back. However this species, as well as all grebes, undergoes a remarkable and colorful transformation in springtime. In preparation for breeding season, adult birds develop a rusty plumage on their flanks that extends to the neck and head, a dark, white-tipped bill, and golden head plumes that extend fully over the sides of the crown, lending to the name Horned Grebe. Local grebes usually begin showing these plumage changes in mid- April, just before their migration.

Horned Grebes breed and nest on freshwater lakes and ponds across mid to western Canada and Alaska. Courtship displays can be very elaborate and involve bobbing and bowing, special calls, and a ballet-like footrace across the water’s surface known as “rushing ceremonies.” This intricate water dance may be performed by a pair or by two males attempting to attract the attention of females.

Once their eggs hatch, both adults feed and protect their young. The juvenile birds will ride on their parents’ backs, even under water, as they learn the skills needed to survive in the natural world. These amazing birds are just one of the many unique discoveries awaiting explorers along our coastlines.

For more information on grebes or any other avian species, visit allaboutbirds.org. For the latest updates on local bird sightings, visit the Audubon Society of Rhode Island at asri.org or call 401-949- 5454.

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