Horned grebe (South Sound marine life)

Horned grebe (Podiceps auritus)

Just as the green of summer foliage changes into the yellows and rusts in fall, so too do some of our aquatic avian friends change their wardrobes.

One notable species is the horned grebe. The photograph shows the winter colors of drab gray, white and black. However, in the spring, this avian dandy sprouts feathers of great color and beauty. During mating season, the neck, breast and belly sport a bright russet, while vivid yellow eyebrows seem to sprout from the red eyes, surrounded by a black head and back.

The horned grebe is a common winter resident of Puget Sound, where it roams the shallow waters diving for small fish, crustaceans and mollusks. They are well-equipped to spend their lives in water, with rear mounted legs and toes that are lobed for maximum underwater propulsion.

As such, they are not good on land, like ducks and geese. The horned grebe averages 13 inches long and ranges from Alaska to Southern California and the Gulf Coast, depending on the season.

Usually hunting alone or with a few other individuals in winter, they will begin to socialize in spring as the breeding season approaches. Like other grebes, the mating dance is a sight to see. The courting pair will swim together and then rush forward in parallel on their tiptoes, running for several yards before plunging back into the water.

They nest in freshwater areas, where they build a floating platform of vegetation anchored in reeds. The young are able to swim and dive right after birth but often are carried by the parents, protected by the folded wings.

The grebes are an ancient group of birds probably having evolved in South America. There are seven species in North America ranging in size from the 9-inch least grebe to the large winter visitor, the western grebe, at 25 inches.

David W. Jamison is a marine biologist and Boston Harbor resident.