Grebe grabbing some grub

I intended to post spiders today.  No, really I did.  I’ve quite a pile of arachnid photos I felt I should offer seeing as the weather finally appears intent on cooling off enough to send insects, arachnids, reptiles and other cold-unfriendly critters to the deepest recesses of memory—at least until the next warm day (which technically will be later this week, after it rains and maybe snows, but anyway…).  Despite my intentions, however, this morning’s walk at White Rock Lake gave me something I just have to share.

I walked along the creek that runs by my home.  It often provides a variety of wildlife.  As I neared Sunset Bay where the creek joins the confluence of Dixon Branch and other flows running to the lake, a splash of water caught my attention.  I paused to watch.  Warm temperatures meant it could be anything, from a snake to a turtle to a host of birds…or even some detritus falling from the surrounding trees.

Even in the weak light of early morning, I knew the moment a pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) surfaced that it had submerged long enough to capture breakfast in its beak.  And breakfast appeared to be a very large crayfish.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) holding a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042150)

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that this bird species remains one of the most skittish animals one can encounter.  The moment these grebes think there’s a threat, they vanish beneath the water’s surface and swim for all they’re worth, eventually surfacing some distance in a random direction.  So I dared not flinch as I photographed this one.  It knew I stood on the bank and it seemed well aware of my proximity.  If I moved, even if I tried to crouch for better photos, the scene would unravel.  Hence I didn’t even move the camera to change settings; instead, I let the shutter fly.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042162)

Pied-billed grebes over these past few years have grown predictable to me.  If they vanish underwater, I usually know where to run so I can be right where they pop up.  And I know they don’t like people, but what they dislike even more is moving people.  That means once they see you, the best option is to freeze and hope for the best.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042170)

That approach worked just fine in this case.  I barely moved the camera as I followed the grebe along the creek.  When it paused to slay the mighty crayfish (meaning when it stopped to tear off the imposing claws), I might as well have been a tree swaying in the breeze.  Sure, the bird looked at me repeatedly to make sure I wasn’t making my move to steal its breakfast, yet I knew moving as little as possible would keep the scene right there in front of me.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042180)

Much thrashing ensued as the bird did battle with the crustacean.  Each time I viewed the two in stark detail, the idea of that little bird eating that huge leviathan seemed laughable at best.  I’ve seen cormorants choke to death on fish too large to swallow.  Several times that vision ran through my head as I watched this childlike, fragile feathered creature as it worked to subdue breakfast.  And each time another claw came off or the crayfish was tossed around to knock it senseless, I realized what I had always viewed as an innocent bird really was a capable predator.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042187)

With its threatening pincers removed and its body still (and maybe lifeless already), the crayfish hung unmoving as the grebe took a final hold on it and headed back toward the lake.  I followed.  Slowly.  And clumsily.  The wind remained quite gusty and the 400mm lens acted like a sail; that meant I had little chance of being surreptitious in my pursuit and observation.  Instead, mostly I swayed trying to keep the camera steady as I clicked away.

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a crayfish in its beak (2009_11_28_042196)

Meanwhile, the grebe swam on with its prize held firmly in its bill.  Though I’ve seen them eat fish (whole), I haven’t a clue how they eat something with an exoskeleton, especially something as large as this specimen.  What I did know as they drifted off toward open water was that the grebe certainly had a hefty breakfast to enjoy this fine Saturday morning.

[I’ve not been able to identify the crayfish yet; it appears little research has been done on Texas crayfish (a.k.a. crawdads, crawfish, yabbies, mudbugs, etc.); though I can find a list of all known crayfish species in the state, I’ve yet to find a key that would allow for the identification of this particular individual; I’m still working on that]

12 thoughts on “Grebe grabbing some grub”

  1. A wonderful post here Jason. The naturalist’s patience and knowledge combined with photographic skill and a rattling good account of the bird’s behaviour. And though it spotted that it was being observed and yet didn’t dive and put a good distance between itself and the man-with-a-camera on the bank, maybe it’s because at some unfathomable level it knew that he was Francis, Kevin and Elijah all rolled into one, about as incapable of harm as any of those bird-loving saints. (Well I guess of the three Elijah was a prophet, but you get my drift!)

    1. That’s a terribly gracious compliment, Clive. Thank you! And you’re right: I’m one of those radical vegans who won’t even wear leather or wool, let alone consume animal products of any kind, and I wouldn’t have the wherewithal of spirit to harm a creature except in the most dire or accidental of circumstances (to which I’ll add such occasions cause me great distress).

  2. Holy freaking cow! Jason, I would have hyperventilated if I had been in your shoes when you captured these pics. Do you think that would have scared the Grebe off? 🙂

    Absolutely fascinating – thank you, Jason.

    1. LOL! Yes, Amber, I’m pretty sure loud heavy breathing and stumbling around or falling over would probably have caused the grebe to flee the scene.

  3. Awesome photos… wow!

    I once watched a hooded merganser in a similar circumstance… only there was the added drama of great black backed gulls trying to steal the crayfish from the duck and actually lifting the hoodie partly out of the water in the process.

    Did the grebe eventually get its dinner down?

    1. You know, Laura, the grebe swam off with the crayfish and disappeared into the confluence (lots of small islands and woods). I never saw it eat the meal, but I shared the photos with our local Audubon chapter and someone else responded with some photos of one they’d seen–and it swallowed the crayfish whole, tail first! I’m guessing that’s what happened with this one.

      And I had to laugh at the idea of the gulls lifting a merganser partly out of the water while trying to take its food. I can definitely believe gulls would try.

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