Horned Grebe

In 1991, Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that “One of the prettiest sights I can remember was the flock of 96 of these diminutive divers, all in bright breeding plumage, swimming in Lake Menomin at Menomonie on April 25, 1967”.  Robbins listed horned grebes as a common spring migrant with a peak from April 10 – 25. 

Photography by Richard Armstrong

Photography by Richard Armstrong

While conducting a waterfowl pair count at Goose Pond on April 24, 2017, we found a horned grebe swimming not far from a flock of 20 ruddy ducks.  Searching the horned grebe records for Goose Pond we found that the first eBird record by Carl Schroeder was from April 16, 1974.  The highest number of horned grebes was Brian Doverspike’s sighting of six horned grebes on April 25, 2013.  This spring Paul Senner found two horned grebes on April 15th on Goose Pond.

A horned grebe was also seen at Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production area by Jim Schwarz on April 22nd.  Richard Armstrong found and photographed horned grebes at Horicon Marsh on April 21st and at Whalen Grade (Highway V) on Lake Wisconsin on April 27th.

The main breeding range of the horned grebe extends from Alaska to the southern Canadian border and east to Hudson Bay.  Horned grebes also nest in northwest Minnesota. In Birds of Wisconsin Ludwig Kumlien and Ned Hollister wrote in 1903 that horned grebes are “still fairly common as a spring migrant…Not infrequently nests in northern part of the state, as it formerly did even in the southern tier of counties…Few of our birds have suffered more from the depredations of the plume hunter, than this species.” 

According to Robbins in 1991, horned grebes are rare summer residents.   The only breeding records through the 1800s to 1990 were from 1880 Lake Koshkonong in Jefferson County, Oconto County 1899; Brown County 1903; Racine County 1940; and Burnett County 1951.   

Photography by Richard Armstrong

Photography by Richard Armstrong

William Brooks wrote in Atlas I “There are enough substantiated records that we can call this grebe a rare breeder in Wisconsin…Wisconsin clearly is, and probably will continue to be at the southeastern edge of its breeding range.”   The only confirmed nesting found in the first breeding bird atlas project was when William Hilsenhoff, past president of Madison Audubon, found a horned grebe brood in 1998 in Langlade County.  An aside is that Hilsenhoff spent a lot of time birding at Goose Pond and entered his records from Goose Pond on eBird.  From 1958 – 1964 Hilsenhoff has the first records recorded for 85 species at Goose Pond.  The only horned grebe nest found in the two years of Atlas II project was by Daryl Christenson and Sumner Matteson at Crex Meadows.  Hopefully other horned grebe nests will be found in the last three years of the current atlas project.

One interesting fact we learned is that horned grebes eat feathers and also feed feathers to their brood.  The feathers form a “plug” in front of their intestines and keeps fish bones in their digestive tract until the bones break down and therefore do not puncture their intestines.

We hope you can visit the local wetlands and see these beautiful grebes.

Written by Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers and Maddie Dumas, Land Steward