Never Say Never in Nature

One of the first things you learn about nature, and birding in particular, is never to say never, as in “You will never see a Western Grebe in Kentucky.” You see, birds don’t read the field guide on which people rely for knowledge. We humans tend to assume the correctness of an authority in any field, but the birds do not. When I saw the posting on the Kentucky Bird List about a rare Western Grebe sighting on the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, I immediately jumped in the car!

A large, elegant, black-and-white grebe, (yes, the adult has red eyes) the Western Grebe breeds in lakes and ponds across the American West and winters primarily off the Pacific Coast, but we rarely see it in Kentucky. The Jeffersonville Overlook, just across the river from downtown Louisville, seems to be a magnet for lost birds. Last month a White-winged Scoter (from the Atlantic coast) was sighted there. When storms rage in the normal territory of a bird, it may be blown far away. Just imagine them saying “I don’t think we’re in Oregon anymore, Toto.”

Western Grebes are most famed for their elegant pas de deux courtship dance. We will have to do some traveling to see this live, but it would be exciting. Alert and covered with blackish or silvery down when hatched, the chicks leave the nest and ride on the back of the parent after hatching.

The Horned Grebe passes through Kentucky during migration, and this one was found on a lake near Elizabethtown, KY. The field guide displays large pictures of the male birds in their vibrant breeding plumage, and if that’s what you look for, you are sure to be disappointed many times. This Horned Grebe, for example, breeds in Canada, so we only see it in the more drab winter plumage as it migrates.

The small Pied-billed Grebe is the one you usually see in Kentucky. When danger approaches it dives underwater and quickly swims away. It’s a wonderful defense – just ask any birder trying to watch one! Observing nature is always the best way to learn about it, with some hints from the field guide. How exciting it is to discover some behavior NOT mentioned in the guide! You can have just as much fun watching birds from your kitchen window as you would be traveling afar. Give it a try!

Naturally yours,