Western Grebe Behavior – An Unusual Variation On A Theme

I’m always intrigued by bird behaviors, especially when it’s something new that I can’t explain or find in the literature.

In the spring during pair bond formation Western Grebes are well-known for long bouts of “mate feeding” where the male repeatedly dives and captures a fish and then delivers it to the female waiting on the surface. I’ve seen and photographed the behavior dozens of times. While both birds are on the surface the female begs loudly for food but when the fish is delivered she swallows it almost immediately and then when the male dives for another fish her begging stops until he resurfaces again.

But ten days ago at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge I photographed a variation of this behavior that I had never seen before and can’t find described in the literature.


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I believe the slightly larger male is the bird on the left. By the time I started snapping photos he had apparently already given the fish to the female on the right. When I’ve observed this behavior in the past the female has always swallowed the fish almost immediately but this time she gave it back to the male, as she’s doing here.



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Here the male has the fish again.



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But then he gave it back to the female.



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She held on to it for a moment…



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and then returned it to the male.



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Then back to the female again.



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Then back to the male…



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who apparently decided that if she didn’t want it…



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he’d gobble it down.

In the past every time I’ve seen mate feeding behavior the female has swallowed the fish almost immediately after delivery and I don’t believe there’s ever been any swapping of the food. This time the fish was passed back and forth between the two birds 6-8 times before the male finally swallowed it (instead of the female, which is typical). I have no idea why the fish was swapped so many times or why it was the male that ate it instead of the female. A wild guess might be that the female was already full from previous mate feedings but that’s nothing more than pure speculation.

Regular readers know that I’m fascinated by bird behaviors and when I observe something new and unexplained (to me at least) my curiosity often gets the best of me – to the point that I actually wish I could approach the birds and ask them “Why did you DO that?”

If only birds could talk…




Lark Sparrows

Lark Sparrows are a gift to the eye and ear. Their distinctive harlequin face pattern of black, white and chestnut combined with the melodious, rich trills of their lark-like song make me long for the return of the species to Antelope Island every spring. I’ve been hearing their song recently and then four days ago I was finally able to get close enough to a couple of birds for some nice images.



lark sparrow 2565b ron dudley 1/3200, f/8, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

Lark Sparrows have an affinity for shrub-steppe sagebrush/greasewood habitat which proliferates on the lower slopes of the island and I love seeing them on their sagebrush perches after those lovely gray/green leaves come out. To be truthful, by this time of year I’m becoming a little weary of the clusters of bare vertical sagebrush stems in my images.

This bird was so sleepy that it could barely keep its eyes open – this is one of the relatively few images I could get where they weren’t half or completely closed. Perhaps it was still recovering from migration…



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  1/5000, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

But this one had more energy and channeled some of it into song. Lark Sparrow singing bouts occur at all hours of the day and into late evening and a single singing session may last an hour or more (I had to smile as I typed that last sentence because there’s been a robin singing in the dark from within two feet of my window for the last hour and it’s very loud!). Their song is a jumble of rich and melodious notes and trills which range in pitch and volume, interspersed with less melodious buzzes and churrs. Three songs can be heard here if you’re interested.

My fascination with Lark Sparrows is due in part to some of their unique behaviors. Courtship in the species differs markedly from that of all other songbirds in that males perform a turkey-like strut with their tail held upright and wings dropped to the ground as they flash white tail spots to the female. And in an impressive display of multitasking and concentration, during copulation the male passes a twig to the female – a behavior known in no other passerine.

I’ve photographed that behavior and posted about it in the past (that post can be seen here) but one of my goals is to do so again. That would make my day!