Afternoon At The Beach With A Pied-billed Grebe

Afternoon At The Beach With A Pied-Billed Grebe

Story and photos by Lori A Cash

May 03, 2021

Spring Afternoon at the Beach

It was a late afternoon on a spring day, when I ventured out to the beach in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My intention was to go to the beach to see what shorebirds were on the beach and to do some shorebird photography using my ground pod.

However, as I got to the beach and scanned the beach, I noticed there was a lone pied-billed grebe sitting on the beach in the sand.  I approached within a reasonable distance and got down on the ground my camera and 500mm lens attached to my ground pod.

I began photographing the pied-billed grebe as it sat on the beach. I was in awe that I saw a pied-billed grebe here on the beach on the Outer Banks as I have only seen the pied-billed grebe in marshy and wetland areas.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) side profile at the beach at Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Pied-billed grebes are small and stocky brown waterbirds with a short chicken-like bill that turns silver with a thick black band during the breeding season.

Pied-billed Grebe Sitting on Beach

As I laid on the sand photographing this scene, I had never seen, in all my years of wildlife photography, a pied-billed grebe at the beach. I have photographed pied-billed grebes at lot in the recent years and have spent a lot of time at the beach and just never had seen or witnessed a pied-billed grebe anywhere near a beach area before.

My first thought to myself was “is this grebe injured”? I looked for signs that it may be injured because for the longest time it just sat on the beach and did not move to much. I cautiously watched this grebe while snapping an occasional photograph, but I was concerned that the grebe was injured. I was going over in my head what or who to call about a possible injured pied-billed grebe on the beach when suddenly the pied-billed grebe started to stir and move around. Of course, I started taking a few images at this time I saw the grebe making some movements. Then this next thing happen that totally stunned me.

Pied-billed grebe sitting on beach on a spring afternoon from a very low perspective at Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Pied-billed grebes habitats are usually marshes, ponds, and freshwater wetlands and very rarely are seen at the beach or in saltwater.

Pied-billed Grebe Walking on Beach

Have you ever seen a pied-billed walking? Well, I had not ever seen a pied-billed grebe walking either, until this particular afternoon as I witness this pied-billed grebe on its back two legs waddling awkwardly down the beach and into the surf. It was a very strange moment for me as it was a shocking behavior, but as a wildlife photographer my instincts took over. I began snapping away to document the very unusual behavior of this grebe.

Pied-billed grebes are not known for walking as they are expert diving birds and are almost always seen in the water. They have a small chunky body with legs that sit far back underneath the grebe’s rear end. Their toes are lobed which help makes them such great swimmers but not great walkers. The positioning of their legs causes the pied-billed grebe to walk awkwardly while on land.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) walking along the edge of the surf at the beach in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Pied-billed grebes feet are not webbed but have webbing that connects their toes with lobes extending out from their toes. These lobes help make the pied-billed grebe an excellent swimmer but inhibit them in their ability to walk on land. The Latin genus for grebe means “feet at the buttocks” which gives them a very awkward looking walk.  

The Pied-billed Grebe, An Unusual Behavior

The grebe walked a short distance before sitting down in the surf. I thought at this moment when the grebe was in the surf that it was going to swim away, but it did not. After just a few minutes of it sitting in the surf, the grebe stood up again and began walking along the surf and back up to the beach to sit. For over an hour this pied-billed grebe kept moving around from the beach to walking and sitting in the surf to walking up the beach again. So, I was figuring by this time the grebe was not injured, but I still wondered how the grebe found its way to the beach.

I continued to document this behavior of the pied-billed grebe while I was lying on the ground getting a very low perspective. As the grebe moved further away from me, I would crawl and drag myself down the beach to keep the grebe in the focal range of my 500mm lens.

I never got too close to disturb or harm the pied-billed grebe. There were a few beach-goers on the beach that afternoon, and they all stayed a proper distance as well from this grebe. But this grebe was drawing a lot of attention from folks on the beach.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) swimming in the surf in the late afternoon at the beach in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Pied-billed grebes are expert divers and are most often seen displaying this behavior in their habitats.

My afternoon with the Pied-Billed Grebe Comes to An End

For a couple of hours on this spring afternoon on the beach, I enjoyed observing the behavior and photographing this pied-billed grebe in many various positions whether the grebe was sitting on the sand, walking on the beach, sitting in the surf, or walking in the surf. As a wildlife photographer, I was thrilled to capture some very unique images of a pied-billed grebe, and as a waterbird lover and conservationist, I was equally thrilled over witnessing such a spectacular behavior demonstrated by this single pied-billed grebe.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) hanging out on the beach on a spring afternoon at Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Pied-billed grebes rarely fly as they are excellent swimmers. They are often a solitary bird and are not found in flocks.

After photographing and observing this grebe on the beach for several hours, I had to make the decision to leave and to gather my photo equipment and head home. When I left the beach, this pied-billed grebe remained sitting on the beach. I was sad to have to leave as I wanted to know what was going to happen to this grebe, wondering if the grebe would find its way back to its natural habitats of wetland and marshes, and too, just as I did not know how this pied-billed grebe ended up on the beach in the first place. I do not know what happened to this grebe after I left the beach that spring afternoon.  However, I do know that I loved my afternoon with this pied-billed grebe and have been very thankful to have witness such a remarkable behavior that is not normally seen, especially in such a very peculiar habitat setting.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) standing on the beach as it begins to walk along the beach on an late spring afternoon in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Conclusion

I learned a lot on this afternoon with this one pied-billed grebe that was at an Atlantic Ocean beach, a rare sighting in this location for a pied-billed grebe. I learned to always be ready for the unexpected with wildlife photography and to document any unusual or usual behavior displayed by my wildlife subjects. I truly enjoyed my experience observing and photographing this beautiful pied-billed grebe.

Witnessing and photographing this walking behavior of the pied-billed grebe was a once in a lifetime experience. I will probably never see a pied-billed grebe walking again in my photography lifetime, anywhere, especially on the oceanfront, but I did, at least, get to see it once and now have wonderful images of this pied-billed grebe walking on the beach on this spring afternoon in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  

Copyright © 2021 Lori A Cash

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