Very Late Breeding Western Grebes

Western Grebes are known to have an extended breeding season but this is getting ridiculous.


1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this adult Western Grebe as it back-brooded two very young chicks with another trailing behind yesterday at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in northern Utah.

Yes, I said yesterday, September 20th!

I have never before seen grebe chicks this young so late in the season. They look to be significantly less than half-grown so they still have to finish growing, develop their juvenile plumage, learn to fish efficiently and fly and become independent from their parents before they migrate and winter is fast approaching. I have serious doubts all that can be accomplished in time.

I can only speculate as to why they’re so late. Perhaps climate change played a role but I also suspect something else. Early this past summer in anticipation of a planned construction project Bear River MBR drained the water from several very large impoundments and canals these grebes have always relied on heavily for breeding. The water had been drained for weeks when the refuge changed their minds (they announced publicly that they had done so) and for whatever reason decided against doing the construction/maintenance project but by that time a significant portion of the breeding season was already history.

Even though those canals and impoundments were eventually filled again they’ve been largely devoid of breeding grebes as compared to previous years. Though I don’t know the full story I can only wonder if this was poor planning by the refuge. I can’t imagine why they would choose to work on such a disruptive project during the breeding season in the first place considering their obvious mission and purpose and then change their minds about doing the project after the damage had been done.

It’s always possible that my implied criticism here (I didn’t accuse, I only questioned) may have varying amounts of validity, or even none at all – after all I’m not a wildlife manager and I don’t know the full story. If any of my readers can shed some light on all this I’d love to be a little better informed and if I’m off-track I’ll be happy to clarify publicly.



  • Western Grebes lose flight muscle mass for much of the summer and are flightless. They also can barely walk on land because their legs are so far behind them. So it would be difficult to impossible for them to move elsewhere once most of the water is drained where they are.
  • The grebes in this photo were photographed on one of the impoundments that had been drained and eventually filled again much later.


25 comments to Very Late Breeding Western Grebes

  • Debbie

    To me, this is heartbreaking. I have seen so many babies die this breeding season, mostly Osprey chicks. Most of the babies were taken by Great Horned Owls going up and down waterways where they nest. If there was more than one chick they would return until they got them all. I heard this was happening along the Mississippi River also. In all the years I have been watching these nests, this is the first time I have seen a GHO take a baby. Anyway, I was wondering if it would be possible to alert rehabbers of the situation so that if it gets too cold they could save a few. I also wonder if the parents will stay with them if the urge to migrate becomes too strong. This has been a very difficult season.

  • Oh dear.
    Seeing chicks should be something to rejoice in, rather than something to worry about.
    Fingers and toes tightly crossed, but my hopes are not strong from all you have said.

  • Pat Henson

    Thank you for this blog post. I have observed a late breeding of Gambel’s Quail in my backyard this year. During the 15 years i have lived in N. Phoenix, I have kept records of when the babies appear and record their growth over the summer months. This year we had an extreme heat wave during the summer and many of the larger families lost several if not all babies. It was heartbreaking. However I also observed a new phenomenon of quail pairs showing up mid to late August with day old chicks! All the other families had juveniles by now. Only one pair has succesfully raised a chick from this late breeding and I have been closely watching for this 1BF (one baby family) every day. My belief is that this pair of Gambel’s Quail are very experienced and determined to raise this chick and keep it safe. I can only surmise that this late breeding was due to the heat wave of 118F – 120F for several days in the midst of 110F – 115F degrees in late July and early August.

  • Patty Chadwick


  • Doc Hansen

    Ron, I have photographed two and maybe three Clark’s grebe pairs with one to three chicks within the last couple of weeks at Utah Lake State Park. There has been plenty of water here during the entire breeding season so there may be a different explanation though I don’t know what it may be. If their nests were disturbed during the normal time and they started over later in the season that may be an explanation. But to have at least two or three pairs in a small area seems like a stretch. I, too, fear that these young ones may have a hard time being ready to migrate. Thanks for sharing your great photo and discussing this potential tragedy.
    Doc Hansen

    • Interesting, Doc. As you allude to Western Grebes will renest if the first one fails but usually they only raise one brood. So perhaps that’s what’s going on at Utah Lake. I’ve also seen Western Grebe chicks begging for food from their parents in the last couple of weeks but even back then they were much older than these three and looked almost exactly like their parents.

  • Susan Stone

    I like your theory about why these Grebes are breeding so late in the season. I hope the chicks are able to make it, but it sounds from something you said yesterday, like winter truly is fast approaching. To me, the idea of draining water from water bird breeding areas during breeding season just sounds stupid, especially because with them changing their minds, this clearly was not an emergency situation.

  • Have you contacted the refuge and asked them if they plan on providing any mitigating processes to keep the late deliveries alive?

    • No, I haven’t, Marian. As far as I know there’s nothing practical they could do anyway. Besides I’m sure they’re fully aware of what’s going on out there.

  • Marty K

    Mother Nature can be a cruel mistress; never more so as with the “aiding and abetting” of mankind. (I have to admit that there’s a part of me that wants to make it right by “rescuing” them.)

    • Marty, maybe we’ll have a late winter and that will give them a better chance. A few (very few) Western Grebes actually hang around here part of the winter when it’s warm enough to keep some of the water from freezing over.

      • Marty K

        I’m not holding my breath on these guys, unfortunately. 🙁

        I’d be really interested to find out the whole story on the “project” if you’re able to get more info.

  • frank sheets

    Great shot Ron. Amazing to see this going on so late. Just wishing them good luck and if you see them again would love to hear they are making out ok. I am not optimistic but wish them the best.

  • Charlotte Norton

    Wow! That does seem late. Super shot Ron!


  • I sure hope they all make it. Even if only one survives, that’s preferred to not having reproduced at all from the standpoint of the population as a whole. Nature can be harsh in that regard, but it’s for the best. Beautiful image! I noticed that you often use the 500mm f/4 with 1.4x. Are you able to readily hand hold that setup or do you rely mostly on a tripod or monopod?

    • David, I hand hold when necessary but it isn’t easy for me, partly because I have back problems. I’m nearly always shooting from the window of my pickup, as I was for this photo.

  • Judy Gusick

    Yikes! I doesn’t sound promising for this batch of young Grebes for sure. 🙁 Interesting possibilities and interesting that the Grebes are flightless in the summer. “Who knows” on the thought process of some folks managing these things………………….