Floating on a Feathered Crib: The Gentle Parenting of a Red-necked Grebe Chick 

Red-necked Grebe Chick Westchester Lagoon Anchorage Alaska

Of all our wildlife encounters in Alaska—a brown bear ambling through the sedge grass fifty metres from us at Chinitna Bay in Lake Clark National Park, a granddaddy bull moose at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park, a bald eagle idling after his halibut dinner on Anchor Point in Homer and Dall’s porpoises rooster-tailing around the bow in Resurrection Bay—it was observing the hatchling (with its zebra-striped head and googly eyes) of Mr. and Mrs. Red-necked Grebe on Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage that gave us pure delight.

Which we would have missed if not for two burly guys, their long black camera lenses camouflaged in greys and greens, like their motorcycle leathers. “There’s a chick riding on the back of that grebe,” one guy pointed out as we were about to walk away to get closer to a pair of swans and their cygnets on the other side of the lagoon, “and dad has just fed it a fish.”

Patiently we waited for the invisible hatchling snuggled down between the wings of mom (or dad) to peek out. What a show this eager-eyed little cutie (I want to anthropomorphize and call him Zeeb) put on!

A grebe chick outgrows its floating crib in ten to seventeen days, so we guessed Zeeb was less than a week old. 

With pro capture mode on our cameras, I think we have more photos of Zeeb peeping out his googly yellow eyes, clambering down for a swim and changing cribs than we do of our daughter Lynn’s first year!

The previous afternoon on our first visit to Westchester Lagoon, a short walk from the Parkside Guesthouse where we were staying, a couple spotted the cameras around our necks and told us where to find grebes and their nest. 

I was surprised to see three oatmeal-coloured eggs in a bulky nest of aquatic plants near the shoreline—untended—not a grebe in site when we arrived.

Turns out grebes are one of the few species of birds to practice the trick of absenteeism to divert predators away from their nests. In their island home the size of a deep-dish pie plate, the eggs of Mrs. Grebe stay warm without her for hours, like an apple pie fresh from the oven sitting on the kitchen counter.

The chick we saw swimming on its own the first day, waiting for the others to crack through the thin eggshell and come out to play, could have been Zeeb’s older sibling, but Magellan guesses it was more likely a cousin.

“Back brooding” is part of the intense parenting of grebes and loons. But unlike loons and ducks, red-necked grebes have lobed feet and agile legs that provide plenty of thrust and minimal drag in the water, making them renowned swimmers and divers. But their legs are set so far back on their football-shaped bodies that they’re not graceful on land, walking, I imagine, like old football players packing bulky midriffs.

Getting onto the nest isn’t easy for grebes either, as we discovered watching one flop onto the three eggs. Though the eggs appeared larger through our camera lenses (grebes lay as few as one and as many as nine), each weighs about thirty grams, half that of a medium-sized egg in your fridge.

Mom and dad take turns incubating for twenty-one to thirty-three days until the chicks all hatch. They feed their young until they fledge, about sixty days after hatching. With their spear-shaped bills, grebes can easily capture small fish and freshwater crustaceans, augmenting their diet with amphibians, leeches and aquatic insects.

We noticed the parents frequently preening, poking their bills into their backs—but then gathering a clump of feathers and gulping them down—essentially eating Zeeb’s cribs! Scientists don’t understand this strange habit, but postulate that grebes do this to prevent indigestible objects (like fish bones) from damaging their gizzards. 

Mr. and Mrs. Grebe are monogamous for life. But they’ll go their separate ways when Zeeb fledges in September, wintering on ocean coastlines, singly or in a small group, before pairing up again in the spring on northern lakes and lagoons in Canada and Alaska. 

While Alaska is a common breeding ground for red-necked grebes (the state estimates 6,000 pairs), they’re an elusive bird that’s said to be uncommon to spot. Yet we got to observe eight of them for more than two hours as just before we left, Magellan captured a third pair of red-necked grebes fighting across the water.

Kudos to the city of Anchorage, which in 1975 designated Westchester Lagoon a bird sanctuary. 

“Did you ever think that one day we’d be birders?” Magellan asked as we reluctantly left the lagoon. 

Navigation

Carter, Nick. “Alberta Red-necks—Grebes, That Is.” Nature Alberta. October 2, 2022. 

Jablow, Valerie. “Bringing up Baby.Smithsonian Science. April 2003.

Parkside Guest House Bed and Breakfast. June through mid-September this distinctive Arts and Crafts style home, managed by the incomparable Carley, is the place to stay in Anchorage.

Stout, B.E., and G.L. Nuechterlein. “Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena). Waterbirds. Alaska Government. The Birds of North America, No. 465. 1999.

4 Responses

  1. Great story and awesome pictures to be sure.
    Thanks for sharing, so nice to see the new growth.

    Cheers,

    1. Let’s hope all three of the eggs in the nest we saw have hatched this week and more of Zebe’s cousins have come out for their first flat-bottom swim.

  2. Love to read about your adventures. We’ve been fortunate to have many travelling experiences but seeing a Grebe in Alaska will only be experienced through your camera and documentaries. Thank you.

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