Identifying Grebes

Bert Frenz, 1999

In the Brazos Valley, we typically have three grebe species and an accidental occurrence of a fourth.  If we include all of Texas, then the species possibilities climb to seven.  For some of these, species identification can be tricky, particularly in winter.  Pied-billed Grebes are numerous throughout the Brazos Valley in winter and a few breed here in summer.  Best birding spots to see migrant or wintering Eared and Horned Grebes are: Alcoa Lake, Lake Bryan, Lake Somerville and Gibbons Creek Reservoir.

Decision Tree for Identifying Grebes

Overall size?
    = Robin-sized
       Bill shape?
           = short & thick .... Pied-billed Grebe
           = thin bill
              Eye color?
                  =   yellow....  Least Grebe
                  =   red
                         = summer
                            Golden tuft?
                                = horns like an expanding eyebrow....  Horned Grebe
                                = ears fanning out behind eye....  Eared Grebe
                         = winter
                                = black cap above eye, white face below eye....  Horned Grebe
                                = black face with white U-shaped crescent along lower edge... Eared Grebe
   = Mallard-sized
      Neck color?
          = red-fronted in summer or mottled gray in winter.... Red-necked Grebe
          = black & white, sharply defined edges
              Eye background?
                  =   white around eye....  Clark's Grebe
                  =   black around eye....  Western Grebe

Other field marks

Pied-billed Grebe - ringed bill except in winter; short neck; big head; black chin in summer; white chin in winter; often submerges by deflating air sacs or somersault dives.

Least Grebe - very small grebe; short neck; white throat; black crown; regular in south Texas.

Horned Grebe - bill thicker than Eared; narrow black line down back of neck in winter; pale spot in front of eye; flatter crown than Eared.

Eared Grebe - neck darker than Horned in winter; peaked crown; floats higher in water than Horned, showing white fluffy undertail coverts.

Red-necked Grebe - medium-sized grebe; in summer, red throat contrasts with white face; in winter, dark face with white crescent; thick, tapered bill; angular head, except 1st winter.

Clark's Grebe - mottled sides mostly white; yellow-orange bill.

Western Grebe - mottled sides mostly dark; straw-yellow bill.

Test your identification skills

(Click on each of picture icons)

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Copyright 1999 Bert Frenz. All rights reserved.
Revised: April 20, 2004.