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Nature Photography - Done Naturally

Western Grebe

Aechmophorus occidentalis

Much of northeastern South Dakota, downward towards the southeastern part of the state, is sprinkled with a wonderful collection of water bodies, and wetlands, including the largest natural lake in South Dakota, at Lake Thompson.  While there has always been a lot of aquatic habitat, in the last few decades, water levels have risen dramatically throughout the region in response to a wetter climate, resulting in roads and farmsteads being consumed by the rising water. From the standpoint of the birds and other animals that need that aquatic habitat though, it's been a major boon, and those water bodies and wetlands are some of my favorite locations to bird in the state.

Lake Whitewood is one of those water bodies, a very large lake just to the east of Lake Thompson. While Lake Thompson has become a fisherman's mecca and often has fishing boats and people along the shoreline, Lake Whitewood is usually pretty quiet in terms of human activity. I don't know if that's the reason, but while I don't see many Western Grebes attempting to nest on Lake Thompson, Lake Whitewood has become a hotspot for breeding activity. In the spring of 2020, I went up to Lake Whitewood with the intention of photographing Western Grebes, and I certainly wasn't disappointed! I'd never seen so many nesting pairs, with at least a hundred pairs visible from a road that cuts through the southern part of the lake.

Western Grebes are wonderful to photograph in the spring for many reasons, not the least of which are their incredible courtship displays. But one photo I'd always wanted to get was a photo of grebe chicks being carried on the backs of the parents. When the chicks are small, it's a common sight, and sometimes a lone parent may be carrying multiple chicks on their back. That spring I did manage some photos of the behavior, but most were relatively long distance, and weren't "special" in my mind.

On July 12th, 2020 I made one more trip up to the region, and drove past Lake Whitewood. By mid-July, I knew that most of the chicks were probably too large to be carried on their parents' backs any more, and that was definitely the case. There were probably a couple of hundred Western Grebes cavorting near the road, but most were adults and chicks that were free swimming and more than half the size of the parents already. But then I saw the melee of the hoarde of Grebes, there was a parent carrying a still small chick on its back.

A very vocal chick as well!  For a while I watched,  as the (presumed) mate of the parent carrying the chick would dive, trying to catch a fish to feed to the chick. Whenever the 2nd parent would dive and resurface, the chick on the back of the 1st parent would get very excited and start calling. That!  THAT is the behavior I wanted to capture in a photo! I set up my car on the edge of the road and used it as a blind (birds generally are much more forgiving of the presence of a car, then a free-walking human being). It took awhile, but file serendipity smiled on me, and the parent with the chick was very close to my position, right when its mate came up with a small fish. The photo below captures the moment right before the second grebe comes into the frame to feed the youngster.

Western Grebe - Aechmophorus occidentalis

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