In spring, my morning walks are all about checking out who’s in town. Lately, the male red-winged blackbirds, who showed up late March ahead of their mates, are flashing their patches. The grackles are making a racket at a neighbor’s feeder. Migrating loons and ducks are feeding in the river.
So a couple of weeks ago, as I crossed Main Street by Boom Island Park in Minneapolis, I was curious about the low-flying bird that was moving incredibly fast around the perimeter of the open area. It looked like some kind of waterfowl, but I couldn’t identify it. I stopped and watched as the bird circled three or four times.
Then it slowed and wobbled, losing altitude fast. It headed in my direction for what I was sure would become a crash landing.
After a bumpy slide in the snow, it came to rest, and I was surprised to see that it was a pied-billed grebe. It sat as if it were sitting in the water, which is where grebes belong. Its back was covered with the snow it plowed up when it landed. I’d learn that my experience wasn’t the only curious one for grebes migrating to Minnesota in harsh spring weather.
Straight away, I tried to figure out how I could fit in a wildlife rehab trip into my day, but my services apparently weren’t needed. As I walked closer to the bird, it rose and started to flap-walk, trotting toward the trees, seeming to use its wings to balance.
I thought it might be limping, but its awkward gait just might have been the way grebes run. I remembered reading that they don’t do well on land, but this one was covering ground — fast.
I held back a little, afraid the bird was fleeing from me. I didn’t see how it navigated the small hill sloping toward the riverbank, but its tracks looked like its body had been dragging as it made its way down the rise. When it reached more level ground, there were just lobed-foot imprints, far apart, as if it were running.
As I sighted it again, it picked its way through the brush along the riverbank and slid into the water. From the riverside deck, I watched it swim in circles, another grebe nearby. After a couple of dives, it surfaced with something in its bill. It was well enough to feed. I was relieved.
I continued my walk, heading toward the lighthouse, where I watched another drama unfold: a battle for a loon’s catch. A gull would dive toward a loon, and the latter would dive with its fish. Then the gull would land in the water in the place where the loon went under. When it spotted the loon surfacing, the gull would take off toward it, and the loon would dive again. This went on five or six times, until the loon seemed to have swallowed its fish. The gull flew off.
Heading home, I marveled at what I had seen, feeling a bit of a buzz from such an extraordinary morning. It wasn’t so extraordinary for the grebe, though, I later learned.
Turns out that Sarah Hagelin of Brooklyn Park and her husband witnessed another grounded grebe making a beeline for water that same morning. She had responded to my post in a Facebook birding group, so I got in touch and we compared stories.
Their dog had been making a fuss, and they looked out their kitchen window to see a grebe sitting on the snow-bare parking lot of the church next door. Like my grebe, it soon flapped and ran across a field, toward a pond that Hagelin said was about half of a football field away.
We shared that each of our grebes seemed to know where the water was. In my bird’s case, the river wasn’t visible from where it had landed, but its route seemed direct.
Hagelin said that she, too, immediately thought of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville, which is where we would have brought the birds had they remained land-bound.
I talked with Phil Jenni, the rehab center’s executive director, who said landings like the ones we witnessed were typically why grebes wind up at the center, often with injuries to their keels. They admitted five of them April 23, he said, the Monday after the April blizzard.
Jenni said that grebes are migrating, and with all the snow-covered surfaces and iced-over lakes, the exhausted birds seem to confuse the dark color of wet pavement for open water. Like loons, they’re unable to take off from land, so they’re stranded, he said.
Unless they manage to run to the water, of course. “Wow. I don’t think of running and trotting in grebes,” Jenni said after hearing my story. A grebe’s feet, set far back on its body, are positioned for diving, not walking, he said.
His and experienced birders’ surprise at the tale has made me wonder: How common is a trotting grebe? Two were caught in the act in one day. What might be happening out there when we aren’t watching?
During the blizzard weekend, I learned firsthand that a gull going after a loon’s catch wasn’t a one-time event, either. This time, the gull was successful and flew off with the spoils.
I’ve realized since all of these sightings that I tend to see bird behavior as dramatic and remarkable, rather than just other beings living their lives. Nature is indeed wondrous, but the more I observe birds, the more I’m coming to appreciate that what is novel to us is just a day-in-the-life for them.
I am trying to be less of a gawking tourist and more open to the idea that their complex lives aren’t simply my entertainment. They are my chance to learn about new cultures very different from mine.
Karen Kraco is a freelance writer and high school science teacher who lives in Minneapolis.