Two reeds and a lily pad do not a nest make. Unless you come back the next day to find a pair of red-necked grebes adding more reeds, finishing what can only be called a love nest.
My wife and I saw those sketchy beginnings on a get-out-of-the-house drive to Crex Meadows Wildlife Area in early May. I declared it a nest because I wanted one there, out in the open, 60 feet off a road.
Crex is 30,000 acres of brush prairie sprinkled with ponds and shallow lakes. There are just enough trees to give it texture. It borders the western Wisconsin town of Grantsburg, a 94-mile drive for us.
The grebes have long been faithful nesting residents on a lake in Crex, a shallow haven for waterfowl, migrants or nesters.
The birds usually have been hard to find, out there somewhere behind a line of reeds or in a distant bay.
My wife and I saw them from a refuge road, naked-eye close. The birds did not show us that embryonic nest. They just swam in the vicinity. That was good enough for me.
We have a friend who has a vacation home in Grantsburg, Dick Sandve. I called him when we got home, told him the story, and asked if he would take a look in the morning.
"Call me, please, if the birds are still there."
Hah! I drove the 94 miles in 90 minutes.
I arrived on the scene just under three minutes before the grebes mounted the improved nest for copulation. After no more than a break for commercial, they did it again. And then they glided away.
Reading that evening I learned that red-necked grebes often build a nest used exclusively for mating. A more substantial nest is — and has been — built for incubation. And it is not located in open water next to a road. The birds hide it in reedy growth.
Red-necked grebes, one of six species to be found in Minnesota, are listed here as common to uncommon. It depends on where you are. The birds prefer large, shallow lakes with cover vegetation. Mostly you will find them west and northwest of Minneapolis.
Or just across the border in Wisconsin.
The other five grebe species here are pied-billed, eared, horned, western, and with straight-flush luck you'll see Clark's, a western doppelgänger but for a minor plumage difference.
I drove to Grantsburg again the next day, departure in darkness this time. It was a miserable, rainy day, unpromising. But the love nest was there, grebes soon arriving. This nest, by the way, is ornithologically known as the platform.
The female slid onto the platform, stretching out prone, a position taken even on water by some waterfowl females to invite mating. The male grebe was aware. I heard him this time, his loud rattling call as brief as the encounter.
She slid off, he almost struck a pose, a distinctive upright position, and the pair swam away.
I didn't go to Grantsburg the next day. Dick checked on the nest site. It had come apart, floating away. He did see the male bird idling in open water along a reed line.
Dick is a good birder. He looked at the reeds very thoroughly more than once. He called to say he had found the ultimate nest.
I made plans to return.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.