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Look Out Below!: Grebes are falling out of the sky 

click to enlarge nat_world-suepurcell_grebe1.jpg

This has been the year for grebes to fall out of the sky, literally. Three weeks ago, a Western grebe was discovered standing in the middle of Bradley Road east of Sisters in the early morning hours by Spirit of Sisters storeowner Sue Purcell.

Sue had no idea what the bird was, where it had come from or why it was sitting in the middle of the road. But she did the right thing and checked to be sure she wasn't going to be run over by a 10-wheeler, carefully wrapped the bird in a blanket, placed it in a cardboard box and called me.

The western grebe, aechmophorus occidentalis, is a water bird that eats fish of all kinds, and is so adapted to paddling on and under water that their legs have moved so far aft they and their kin have evolved into swimmers, not walkers.

Western grebes are black-and-white, especially in breeding plumage, with a long, slender, swan-like neck and brilliant red eyes. In the early 1900s when bird's feathers were big in women's fashion, grebes were slaughtered by the "plume-hunters" who took only a patch of skin and breast feathers and sold it as "Oregon Sable."

What the grebe was doing in the middle of Bradley Road is a mystery. But one thing for sure, it got there on its own, and probably did so while migrating southward at night from one of the many lakes in the Northwest. Like most birds, grebes migrate at night, staying on course unerringly, steering by the stars. Perhaps this one just ran out of gas fighting a headwind, or maybe it looked down at the roadway reflecting the bright moonlight and thought it was a pond or river - or whatever.

Then last week another grebe fell out of the sky and landed on the snow-covered lawn in the USFS Sisters Ranger District compound. Just the other day another grebe was found in Bend sitting in the middle of the road. But this one was a Pied-billed Grebe, smaller cousin to the larger Western Grebe. Tracy Leonhardy, a wildlife rehabber, picked it up and refueled it in her bathtub with tiny "feeder fish" from the pet store. If all goes well, it will be released out at Prineville Reservoir where it can join other grebes and head off to the coast.

I asked a few friends and wildlife biologists what they think is going on. Biologist Jay Bowerman, of the Sunriver Nature Center, said, "Actually, falling grebes have been a pretty recurrent theme during my rehab years. It's usually been only one or two at a time, but the pattern has been pretty consistent.

Fall migration time combined with the right weather phenomena (sudden drop in temperature and/or a very low cloud ceiling, and generally either ice or wet pavement). These poor little guys (grebes and loons) are like float planes without wheels and can't take off from dry ground due to their anatomical specialization. With perhaps one exception (a grebe with a broken wing), all others have been fine except for making the mistake of landing on a road or ice, and being unable to take off again.

Over the past 35 years, I've handled perhaps a couple of dozen, including three loons and the rest mostly eared and pied-billed grebes. The last one I had was a juvenile loon two years ago. He went into Lake Aspen and spent a couple of days recharging his batteries then headed on south."

Here's an idea only Jay could come up with... "While I've never tried it, I suppose if one couldn't find open water, it might be possible to launch a bird airborne from a vehicle (standing in the back of a pickup or peddling madly while riding on a bike) and taking it up to launch speed, and then letting go when it's got its wings out and flapping. But when you try it, get someone to film it you so we can watch you falling off the bike on YouTube."


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