Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

March 1, 2009

Document Behavior

Filed under: behavior, Birds, favorite places, Gilbert Water Ranch — richditch @ 1:03 pm
Pied-billed Grebe display

Pied-billed Grebe display

I’ve spent a lot of time in the field since 1970, both as a birder and as a bird photographer, but I’ve never experienced this behavior before. I only became aware of it when I saw a similar photograph by Ron Dudley of Utah late in 2008. Ron also has photographed this same behavior in Western Grebe as well. If I hadn’t been aware of the action from Ron’s photo I might have easily missed this opportunity as it didn’t last long and wasn’t repeated.

My assumption is that its part of a mating display, although there wasn’t another grebe close by when I saw this on 02/27/09 just before 8:00 AM. But I’m curious and would like to hear from anyone with more knowledge of what is going on and any references to articles or books that explain it.

Pied-billed Grebe display

Pied-billed Grebe display

These two images are part of a sequence of a Pied-billed Grebe from the Gilbert Water Water near Phoenix, AZ. PBGR is seen year round at the Water Ranch, sometimes in small groups of 5-6 birds but more often as 1 or 2. The light is a bit harsh and that effects image quality to some extent, as does the 50% crop of each image. But I’m delighted to have captured this display.

Please comment if you know more about this behavior and provide citations to published literature on it if available.

Here’s the definitive answer from the leading expert on grebes, who I was able to contact after a blog reader provided details:

This is a very easy question! The photos show “full body stretch”, which is part of the comfort behaviour, often performed after preening, when is alone and relaxed.

The “primitive” grebes (genera Rollandia, Tachybaptus, Podilymbus and Poliocephalus) do this with wings raised over the back but folded, while members of Aechmophorus and Podiceps even stretch the wings. In my book “The Grebes” (Oxford Univ. Press, 2004; I think this has been scanned by Google and is available on the internet) Fig. 8.3. shows the full body stretch of Podiceps cristatus.

Best regards

Jon Fjeldså



  1. This display doesn’t seem to be in Fjeldså’s book /The Grebes: Podicipedidae/ However, he mentions other species’ displays “with more or less spread wings”: the Triumph Display in the Great Crested Grebe and the Cat Posture in the Red-necked Grebe . Page 65 of /The Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds/ shows a Great Crested Grebe with its wings in a somewhat similar position. (Click on this book at Amazon and “Look Inside” for “Ceremonies of Courtship”.) What seems to be different in your picture is the bird’s display of its black throat patch, which Fjeldså mentions for other Pied-billed displays.

    Comment by Jerry Friedman — March 1, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

  2. The URLs I tried to post didn’t turn out right. Fjeldså’s book is at Google Books. Try Great Crested, Red-necked, and Pied-billed. Or let me try this:

    and the same for pp. 84 and 85.

    Comment by Jerry Friedman — March 1, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

  3. Okay, so I got it wrong. I’m glad Fjeldså’s name was useful!

    Comment by Jerry Friedman — March 2, 2009 @ 11:08 am

  4. I watched a Pied-billed Grebe this afternoon for about 10 minutes. He or she had just finished a dive when I first spotted this Grebe. I proceeded to go into a series of moves and behaviors which seemed to me to be a comibination of feather preening, fluffing and stretching. The Grebe displayed the very behavior that you caught on film (very good photography on your part). So my guess is as Jon Fjeldså says above: body stretch.

    Comment by Mike Constant — March 12, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

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