Eared Grebes

In 1968 Madison Audubon was celebrating the acquisition of the first purchase at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Also in 1968 Sam Robbins celebrated his rare finding on July 6 when he found two newborn young eared grebes riding on the back of an adult in St. Croix County. This is the only eared grebe nesting record for the state.

Eared grebes are small grebes with a peaked head and a thin bill. They are stunning in breeding plumage with their chestnut sides, black head and neck with golden feathers fanning out behind the red eyes.

  Photo by John Kendall (Flickr CC)

Photo by John Kendall (Flickr CC)

Eared grebes are the most numerous grebe in the world and three subspecies of eared grebes Podiceps nigricollis are found in Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well at North America. Podiceps means "vent" or "anus" and pes translates to"foot"; this is in reference to the attachment point of the bird's legs—at the extreme back end of its body. The species names nigricollis is Latin for "black-necked": niger means "black" and collis means "neck". In Europe they are called black-necked grebes.

Sam Robbins in 1991 wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that eared grebes are an uncommon migrant and casual summer resident. There were only four observations in Wisconsin from the late 1800’s up to 1940. After that there were almost 100 records from 1940 to 1985. Sam wrote “This species favors such shallow prairie ponds as …. Goose Pond. On two occasions individuals summered at Goose Pond” (1956 and 1965).  

  Eared grebe pair at Goose Pond. Photo by Richard Armstrong

Eared grebe pair at Goose Pond. Photo by Richard Armstrong

The first Wisconsin breeding bird atlas from 1995 – 2000 only found two pairs of grebes and none were confirmed nesting. Minnesota completed their breeding bird atlas in 2013 and confirmed eared grebes nesting only in five blocks. This is a very rare species in Wisconsin; however, researchers estimate the North American eared grebe population is stable at 3.5 – 4.1 million. Most grebes nest in the Great Plains, including in Canada. Years ago we were on an MAS field trip to North Dakota and toured a large prairie wetland and observed several thousand nesting eared grebes. 

Tom Wood, from Menominee Falls wrote on the June 4 WisBirdNet email listserv “there have been 3 Eared Grebes at Goose Pond in Columbia County for at least a few days. This morning I sat on the bench overlooking the west pond. This bench is across the road from the informational kiosk. They were on the far side of the pond so a scope was needed. Two are in breeding plumage and the other partially in breeding plumage (black head with golden plumes, but foreneck rather brownish)."

  “Grebe Team” of Sumner Matteson and Daryl Christensen. Photo by Mark Martin

“Grebe Team” of Sumner Matteson and Daryl Christensen. Photo by Mark Martin

The DNR “Grebe Team” of Sumner Matteson and Daryl Christensen surveyed Goose Pond on June 12 and found the pair constructing a second platform in the open water area. They also found a male red-necked grebe (state-endangered) and eight pied-billed grebe nests. This spring there was a horned grebe on the pond. Goose Pond and Rush Lake are the only wetland in Wisconsin where four species have been found in a given year.

Grebes build nesting platforms and we were excited to see the grebes carrying arrowhead stems and constructing a platform. Carrying nesting material is a “confirmation” for most birds except for wrens. We also learned from Nick Anich, DNR Atlas Coordinator, that eared grebes build copulatory platforms. They may build a number of platforms and we have seen them constructing three platforms.

Eared grebe building nesting platform at Madison Audubon Society's Goose Pond Sanctuary in June 7, 2018; video by Patrick Ready

 Photo by skinnybrager (Flickr CC)

Photo by skinnybrager (Flickr CC)

We and many others are watching for the pair to begin nesting. Hopefully in July there will be some cute little grebes riding around on their parents backs. The young can climb, swim, and feed an hour after hatching. If you want to see the grebes, a spotting scope is very helpful and you should visit sooner than later since the arrowheads are rapidly growing and the pond will be green instead of blue in a few more days.

We are holding a 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday August 18th and we hope you can join us and hopefully we can also celebrate the second nesting pair of eared grebes in Wisconsin. 

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers