Monday, September 18, 2023

Episode 664 (9-18-23): Grebes Sink AND Swim

Click to listen to episode (3:54).

Sections below are the following:

Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.)

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 9-15-23.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the weeks of September 18 and September 25, 2023.  This is a revised version of an episode from September 2014.

SOUNDS - ~6 sec – Pied-billed Grebe call.

This week, we feature some raucous mystery sounds from a family of diving birds.  Have a listen for about 20 seconds, and see if you can guess what’s making these calls.  And here’s a hint: you’ll get grief if you miss this name by only one letter’s sound.

SOUNDS - ~ 22 sec.

If you guessed grebe, you’re right!  Those were some of the sounds made by the Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, and Red-necked Grebe.  Out of 22 grebe species worldwide and seven in North America, these three species are found commonly in many aquatic habitats in Virginia, with two others—the Eared Grebe and the Western Grebe—seen occasionally within the Commonwealth.  Horned Grebes and Red-necked Grebes are regular winter residents on Virginia’s coasts, while the Pied-billed Grebe is typically a year-round resident on the coast and a winter resident in other regions.

Grebes are known for their swimming and diving abilities; for example, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of the World” Web site says quote, “[g]rebes rocket through the water by compressing water behind them with coordinated thrusts of their muscular legs,” unquote; and Cornell’s “All About Birds” site calls the Pied-billed Grebe “part bird, part submarine.”  Lobed toes set far back on their bodies adapt grebes for swimming, and their ability to add or remove water and air from their feathers and internal air sacs helps them to float or, as needed, to submerge to escape danger or to feed.  Grebes feed on a variety of aquatic animals like fish, crustaceans, and insects; on aquatic plants sometimes; and—notably—on their own feathers.  In turn, they may be eaten by such predators as raccoons, snakes, and birds of prey.

Grebes call and act aggressively during breeding season, but they may be quieter and much less noticeable during non-breeding season.   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 for permission to use the grebe sounds, from the Stokes’ Field Guide to Bird Songs, and we let the Pied-billed Grebe have the last call.

SOUNDS - ~6 sec.


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of “Cripple Creek” to open and close this episode.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


This Virginia Water Radio episode revises and replaces Episode 233, 9-29-14.

The sounds of the Horned Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, and Red-necked Grebe were 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.  Lang Elliot’s work is available online at “The Music of Nature” Web site,

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at


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

Pied-billed Grebe at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming, April 2016.  Photo by Tom Koerner, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at; specific URL for the photo was, as of 9-18-23.

Horned Grebe with chick, at Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, June 2005.  Photo by Donna Dewhurst, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at; specific URL for the photo was, as of 9-18-23.

Red-necked Grebe pair, at Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, May 2005.  Photo by Donna Dewhurst, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at; specific URL for the photo was, as of 9-18-23.


The following information is quoted from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at, primarily the “Life History” section of the the Pied-billed Grebe entry, online at

The scientific name of the Pied-billed Grebe is Podilymbus podiceps.

Physical Description

“This species is 12-15 inches (31-38 cm) long with a 23 inch wingspread.  It is a small, stocky bird distinguished by its short, blunt bill encircled by a broad black band with the upper portion of the bill curved downward; it is often described as chicken-like.  ...Grebes have lobed toes, feet that are placed far back on the body, and a short rudder-like tail to aid in pursuing prey underwater.”


“The nest is built by both members of the pair and is made up of flags, rushes, sedge, algae and mud and is attached to grasses, reeds or bushes in the water. ...The eggs are laid from March to September, are blue-white initially, and then turn brown.  The brown color results from the adults covering the eggs with wet organic matter when they are foraging or defending the territory.  ...There may be up to 2 broods per year.  Incubation takes about 23 days and begins with the first egg laid.”


“Nest attendance is shared equally by the male and female during egg-laying and post-laying periods.  Incubation however, is carried out mostly by the female.  The streaked or spotted chicks can swim almost immediately after hatching.  The young will usually travel on the parents back or will cling to their tail.  The parents may feed the chicks and even dive while chicks are on their back.  The parents will return to the nest frequently with the young.  Young grebes fledge at about 35 days.  ...[This species] rarely flies, and it escapes by diving with a short leap or by slowly submerging.  It is the most solitary of the grebes.  It is the first grebe to arrive north in the spring and the last to leave in the fall.  It migrates in closely-massed flocks. ...”


“Diet consists primarily of fish including eels, carp, and catfish as well as sticklebacks, sculpins, silversides, and minnows.  [It will also] forage on crayfishes, aquatic insects, snails, spiders, frogs, tadpoles, some seeds and soft parts of aquatic plants, ...[and] on shrimp in saltwater bays and estuaries.  [It ingests] large numbers of their own feathers.  This may serve to protect the stomach from puncture by indigestible parts and prevent hard items from entering the intestines.  Feathers also provide the base material of regurgitated pellets that contain undigested material such as fish bones.”

Aquatic/Terrestrial Associations:

“In Virginia, pied-billed grebes have been observed foraging with snowy egrets.  Mutualistic foraging enhances opportunities for obtaining prey.  Limiting factors: The greatest losses of nests and eggs resulted from wind, rain, waves, and storm tides.  Predators of eggs and young include raccoons, laughing gulls, water snakes, snapping turtles, and peregrine falcons.”


Used for Audio

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at
The Horned Grebe entry is online at;
the Pied-billed Grebe entry is online at;
the Red-necked Grebe entry is online at

National Audubon Society, “Taxonomic Family: Grebes,” online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Birds of the World,” online at  (subscription required).
The entry for the taxonomic family of grebes, Podicipedidae, is online at; this is the source of the quote in the audio.
The Horned Grebe entry is online at;
the Pied-billed Grebe entry is online at;
the Red-necked Grebe entry is online at

Indiana Audubon, “Pied-billed Grebe,” by Annie Aguirre, July 1, 2018, online at

Angela Minor, “Birds of the Blue Ridge: Pied-billed Grebe,” Blue Ridge Country, December 27, 2022.

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

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at
The Horned Grebe entry is online at;
the Pied-billed Grebe entry is online at;
the Red-necked Grebe entry is online at

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “List of Native and Naturalized Fauna in Virginia, August 2022,” online (as a PDF) at

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

For More Information about Birds in Virginia or Elsewhere

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Birds,” online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird. Information is available online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, “Animal Diversity Web,” online at

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at  The Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation, online at  This site provides sounds of birds and other wildlife from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

Following are links to some other episodes on diving birds.

American Coot – Episode 391, 10-23-17.
Cormorants – Episode 467, 4-8-19.
Loons – Episode 445, 11-5-18.


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2018 Science SOLs

Grades K-4: Living Systems and Processes
1.5 – Animals, including humans, have basic life needs that allow them to survive; including that animals have different physical characteristics that perform specific functions; and animals can be classified based on a variety of characteristics.
2.5 – Living things are part of a system.
3.4 – Adaptations allow organisms to satisfy life needs and respond to the environment.
3.5 – Aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems support a diversity of organisms.
4.2 – Plants and animals have structures that distinguish them from one another and play vital roles in their ability to survive.
4.3 – Organisms, including humans, interact with one another and with the nonliving components in the ecosystem.

Grades K-5: Earth Resources
4.8 – Virginia has important natural resources.

Grade 6
6.6 – Water has unique physical properties and has a role in the natural and human-made environments.

Life Science
LS.6     – Populations in a biological community interact and are interdependent.
LS.7 – Adaptations support an organism’s survival in an ecosystem.

BIO.8 – Dynamic equilibria exist within populations, communities, and ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.
Episode 524, 5-11-20 – on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.
Episode 531, 6-29-20 – on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.
Episode 539, 8-24-20 – on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.
Episode 606, 12-6-21 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.