Water MovesA photographer follows the courtship ballet of western grebes.
Photography and text by Don Enger
It's spring, the ice is out. Western grebes return to their colonial nesting areas to begin courtship, mating, nest building, incubating eggs, and nurturing young.
Many lakes in western Minnesota host nesting grebes. But few rival Lake Osakis, where there are nearly 300 nesting pairs every spring. On Osakis the ice usually goes out about April 20. Within a week or 10 days, the grebes arrive. Then the action begins.
I have lived on Lake Osakis since 1972. During my first spring on the lake, I couldn't help but notice the long-necked birds enact their dramatic rituals a mere 100 yards from our deck. Fascinated, I tried to photograph every aspect of their courtship, nesting, and nurturing the young.
To build a blind for photography, I disguised an angler's float tube with rushes to resemble a muskrat house. I bobbed around like a cork. Getting in and out with my gear was a nightmare. I scrapped it, and designed a more functional blind, 4 feet in diameter with 6 inches of styrofoam for flotation, covered top and bottom with quarter-inch plywood and a 20-inch-diameter hole in the center for me. I cut this large doughnut in half, placing a hinge in the back and a lock in the front so I could climb into it easily wearing neoprene waders. This time I used camouflage fabric to disguise the blind. Propelling the blind with my feet, I've mingled with the grebes and photographed all phases of their life on Lake Osakis at close range.
Shortly after the grebes arrive, they swim in pairs, alternately dipping and shaking their heads, as though they are showing off to one another. At this stage in their courtship, they also barge--slowly tread water together, propelled by their lobed feet with most of their bodies upright and above the water.
If two grebes go off by themselves, attentive only to one another, you might anticipate the weed dance. Suddenly the grebes submerge and then surface with weeds in their beaks--and the dance begins. They come together, breast against breast. With heads to the sky, they shake away the weeds in a frenzied manner. In a minute or two, it's over and they swim off contentedly.
If you are photographing the grebes and see a pair lying low in the water, facing off and glaring at one another with their red eyes, bills only a couple of feet apart, get ready: You have only a second or two before rushing begins. You might become mesmerized, as I did, and forget you have a camera. Rushing is the most dramatic of the courtship displays. A pair will arch their necks in S fashion, patter swiftly over the surface in synchronization for 20 to 30 yards, and then dive.
Western grebes nest colonially, often just a few feet apart, in relatively shallow water with a thick growth of rushes for protection. The nest of marsh plants and mud is attached to the rushes in a way that allows it to rise and fall with the water level. Nonetheless, the nests are vulnerable to high winds and predators, such as mink and great horned owls.
The female lays three to five light buff-colored eggs. Both female and male incubate them for about 23 days. As soon as a young one hatches, it climbs onto the back of one of its parents. Because they do not all hatch simultaneously, young ones ride on the parent's back as the remaining eggs are being turned and incubated. Once all of the chicks have hatched, the family leaves the congested nesting area, where other grebes compete for food, and hungry northern pike frequent the shallows.
One of the young grebe's first meals is a feather from the breast of one of its parents. Gary Nuechterlein, a grebe specialist at North Dakota State University, posits that feathers might protect the stomach lining from tiny sharp bones when the young are fed minnows, or they could help to capsulize indigestible material so it can be regurgitated as pellets. Adults also eat feathers, perhaps for the same purposes.
When first photographing the birds, I was too eager to get close. Twice I got pecked above the knee. Luckily, I was wearing heavy rubber waders that kept me from getting pierced.
Funny things can happen too. One day two fellows fished for sunfish just a few feet from where I floated, undetected, in the rushes. I couldn't hold back a sneeze. One angler, who had his back to the other said, "Man, you've got quite a cold."
"I have not."
"Well, you sure have, or you wouldn't sneeze like that."
I couldn't resist: I coughed loudly--this time on purpose.
"There you go again--you do have a bad cold."
Since I first noticed western grebes on Lake Osakis, I haven't been able to pass up this terrific photo opportunity. Hard work? Yes, but the kind of hard work I dream of doing.
Don Enger is an outdoor photographer who lives in Osakis.