Photography tip – Horned Grebes

Pair of Horned Grebes at Bear Lake at the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center in northeast Indiana. One is in winter plumage and one is in summer.

Pair of Horned Grebes at Bear Lake at the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center in northeast Indiana.
One is in winter plumage and one is in summer.

This isn’t so much a photo tip as it a note about Horned Grebe plumage.  If you want to take away some photo info from this post, just keep in mind that it’s good to know about the birds you’re shooting and their various plumages.

Almost everything you read about Horned Grebes refers to its “breeding” plumage versus “non-breeding” plumage.  These two were the only Horned Grebes on the lake and were seen there for several weeks.  In fact, I’ve seen pairs like this at other places this time of year.  Presumably they are a breeding pair.  I suppose it’s possible that the more colorful one is waiting for the other one to get into it’s “breeding” plumage so that they can get jiggy, but how would we ever know.  I’m going out on a limb and saying that this is a breeding pair and that the plumage has nothing to do with it.

So, why do they change plumages so drastically between the winter and the summer?

First of all, it has been noted by biologists that an awful lot of sea surface animals are dark on the top and light-colored beneath.  Various species of penguins, dolphins, etc. exhibit this coloration.  The thought is that they are harder to see from above if they are dark color above, and harder to see from below if they are light colored below.  Looking at a range map of the Horned Grebe, we see that their winter range is all along both coasts!  Voila!!

So then, why the fancy schmancy summer plumage?  It so happens that their summer nesting spots are marshes in Canada and Alaska, where that fancy schmancy plumage would actually provide good camouflage.  The brownish body and dark head with the goldish ‘horns’ would blend in nicely with a reedy marsh.

During migration, it probably doesn’t matter whether their plumage is one way or the other, so they molt during that time and pairs can be in different plumages at the same time.  Perhaps in another week these two would have been in full summer plumage ready for another nesting season.

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