Nature at its finest is close at hand
My earliest memory of western grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis) comes not from personal observation but rather from television in the late 1960s. I recall being a rather young child and watching film footage of the spectacular courtship dance of these dynamic water birds. It could have been a National Geographic special, a Disney show, or Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. It doesn't really matter I suppose, the point is it had a lasting impact.
In North Dakota there are six species of grebe which regularly show up to nest, western grebe being the largest. Neither a goose nor a duck, grebes are quite unique waterfowl. Fossil records indicate a long and far-reaching ancestry. In the past, scientists often associated grebes with loons, both being foot-propelled diving birds. A recent attempt seemed to shatter that notion and instead align grebes more closely with flamingos. That data appeared to be flawed, however, and the grebes' evolutionary relationship to loons seems to be restored for the time being.
Western grebes can be identified by their dapper black-and-white plumage, not unlike that of a slimmed down floating penguin I suppose. Their long elegant necks are punctuated with long greenish yellow bills. Clark's grebes are very closely related to western grebes and until just a few years ago were treated as the same species. Today it is considered separate and can be differentiated from westerns by their bright yellow bills, a slighter build, and white feathering surrounding a red eye (it's black in western).
This is an awkward and clumsy bird on land and so spends nearly its entire life in water, even to nest. As its common name would suggest, western grebes nest in the western U.S. and southern Canada. Colonies can be found throughout North Dakota in certain locations where the birds--EMDASH--often hundreds at a time--build floating nests of submerged vegetation.
It requires a body of water of at least a few square kilometers in which to nest but given the current 20-year wet cycle, several wetlands in southwestern Cass County are now large enough to meet that demand. Nearest to West Fargo is probably the Alice wetland complex where several nearby lakes are large enough to host grebe colonies.
Even in the dark you know when you are getting close to a western grebe site. Loud dry choruses of "Creee-Creeet" echo repeatedly across the water. An active colony is a wonder to behold with chattering noise, courtship behavior, nest building and maintenance, and territorial disputes, recalling the bustle of a midtown Manhattan afternoon.
Once the downy gray young have hatched they immediately take to riding the backs of parents. Back-brooding, as it is called, continues until the chicks are up to four weeks old. This is yet another of many moments in their life cycle worthy of photographs.
Western grebes are night migrants. The number of times I've seen these birds fly could be counted on one hand. Instead of taking flight in the face of potential danger as ducks and geese will do, grebes simply dive and disappear beneath the water (two South American species are completely flightless).
Of all the curious sights and sounds surrounding the life cycle of western grebes, nothing compares to the courtship dance known as the "rushing ceremony." An entire series of rituals takes place between courting pairs too numerous to describe but it's among the most complex of any bird species in the world. It all seems to culminate with a synchronous paired sprint across the top of the water with both birds holding their necks in an arch and seemingly running on water. So startling, it seems to defy physics.
These fish-eating birds are done nesting for 2013 and so another year must pass before we get to witness the grace and symphony of a courtship. Come next spring, though, I won't be relying on television to see it. I plan on standing along the shore of any of several large area wetlands to witness firsthand one of the more spectacular nature displays our area has to offer.