We had a very early start of our usual fall waterbird season this year with several birds coming down with the October storms. These two are grebes, and if you know me, you know I think these kinds of birds are some of the coolest around. This picture gives us an excellent view of the differences between the Clark's Grebe and the Western Grebe. The Clark's is the one in front, and an older bird. The one is the back is the Western and is a young, likely first year bird. Both came down on wet pavement thinking it was a river or lake. Both were very thin, needed worming, hypothermic, and needed a solid rest. For some reason all the birds that came down, including one loon, were extremely thin which indicates they were not finding enough food on their breeding grounds prior to migration. The worms didn't help either.
These birds cannot fly from a stand-still, they must have water. For the Western at least 20-30 feet of a water 'runway' is needed for them to get into the air. Their legs are set far back on their bodies, like a penguin and for that reason they cannot walk well, much less get a running start to get in the air. Their bodies are heavy and their wings small in relation to their body size - this is because these birds are excellent fishers. A Western can get moving so fast underwater they can spear their fish. THAT is impressive! Its that heavy body and those small wings held flat against their bodies that allows them to dive and stay down to fish. But with these very neat anatomical features comes a heavy price to pay if they are not fit enough for reaching a watery destination. Sadly, these guys in an emergency (hypothermia, fatigue) must choose whatever looks closest to water and make a gamble. If lucky, some kind soul finds them and gets them to a rehabber who can warm them up, worm them, get them waterproof again, fed a bit, and released.
When they come in as thin as these did, it takes a few days for their digestive tracks to get to fully functioning again and for them to be able to handle fish. Many of these birds' intestinal tracks go through some atrophy prior to migration in order for the bird to be light enough to make their full migration. More on that in another post. This October we have had 4 grebes and one common loon. Wickiup was the destination for release as there is lots of little fish and other grebes for them to gather up with prior to finishing their migration. Western Grebes and Loons all winter on the ocean and head toward the Oregon coast where you can find them at sites like Yaquina Bay.
The most stressful part of working with waterbirds is their release. These birds absolutely must be 100% waterproof. And weakness, hypothermia, and worms all lead to loss of this critical feature that allows them to survive freezing water temperatures through the winter. If the birds are not waterproof, they will die. These two in the following video were two of the youngest. You can see them figuring out which way to go as they hear the calls of the group of other grebes out on Wickiup. They turn toward the group and as they get close two older birds swim out to them and herd them into the group. It was a beautiful day, and a wonderful release. Good luck little ones, we hope you find lots of fish and make it over the mountains to the coast!
For a VIDEO of the release, see my fb page!
Author: Elise Wolf
I have been fascinated by wild birds my whole life. The current stresses on our wild bird populations is extraordinary, and helping them is not only an act of kindness and compassion, but demonstrates that humans do have the ability to be selfless and act with love towards their non-human planetary family.