Monday, September 29, 2014

Episode 233 (9-29-14): Grebes Sink AND Swim

Click to listen to episode (2:52)


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of September 29, 2014.

This week, we feature some raucous mystery sounds from a family of diving birds.  Have a listen for about 25 seconds, and see if you can guess what’s making these calls.  And here’s a hint: you’ll come to grief if you miss this by one letter’s sound.


If you guessed grebes, you’re right!  Those were some of the sounds made by the Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, and Red-necked Grebe.  Out of 21 species worldwide and seven in North America, these three species are found commonly in Virginia.  Horned Grebes and Red-necked Grebes are regular winter residents on Virginia’s coasts, and the Pied-billed Grebe is a year-round resident throughout much of the Commonwealth.  As a group, grebes are known for their swimming and diving abilities.  Lobed toes set far back on their bodies adapt grebes for swimming, and their ability to remove air from their feathers and internal air sacs helps them submerge to escape danger and to feed on a variety of aquatic animals and plants.  Grebes call and act aggressively during breeding season, but they’re generally quieter and much less noticeable during non-breeding seasons.   In fact, a calm pond surface might conceal a hiding grebe with only its nostrils exposed to the air, or that surface might be broken—almost silently—by a grebe emerging with a fish in its bill.  Thanks to Lang Elliott, Nature Sound Studio, and the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs for this week’s sounds.

For other water sounds and music, and for more Virginia water information, visit our Web site at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  From the Virginia Water Resources Research Center in Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


[All Internet addresses mentioned were functional as of 9/29/14]

Two Pied-billed Grebes on a pond in Blacksburg, Virginia, September 28, 2014.


The sounds of the Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, and Ring Necked Grebe Snow Geese were taken from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at and the “Music of Nature” Web site,

Sources for this episode

“All About Birds,” Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, online at; and “Birds of North America Online” Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, online at (subscription required).

Audubon Society, “Grebes,” online at

“Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, online at

A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, by Chandler S. Robbins et al. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001).

The Life of Birds, 2nd Edition, by Joel C. Welty, W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, 1975.

Other sources of information about birds in Virginia
For other Virginia Water Radio episodes on birds, please see that topic in our index at

For selected news, events, and resources relevant to birds and water in Virginia, please visit this link at the Virginia Water Central News Grouper:

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at
Life in the Chesapeake Bay
, by Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

E-bird, maintained by the Cornell Lab and the Audubon Society, online at  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.