Nantucket Birdwatching Excursion Ends in Red-necked Grebe Rescue

Feb 5, 2014

On Saturday February first, WCAI’s Morning Edition Host, Dan Tritle and his wife Janet Gardner were visiting Nantucket to participate in the third annual Moby Dick-reading marathon. Having heard me carry on incessantly about this year’s Snowy Owl incursion, Dan and Janet were hot to see one of these magnificent birds.  So after they had completed their Moby Dick readings, we headed out to try to find one.

The weather was balmy, in the 40s, with no wind and hazy sunshine. Better weather than anyone can hope to expect in February! After striking out on finding a Snowy Owl at the first location, location number two - a walk along a sandy road at Low Beach - produced not one, but two Snowy Owls. Great views were had through spotting scopes and a bonus adult Peregrine Falcon flew in and landed on an antenna allowing great views as well. A successful Snowy Owl viewing expedition completed, we decided to check another area in search of even more owls. After all how many Snowy Owls is too many? Besides, the ferry they were catching was still an hour and a half away.

Searching an area in the moors we spotted another Snowy Owl in the distance. While looking across a frozen pond at the owl we noticed a bird on its belly on the ice. On checking through binoculars I was surprised to see that it was a Red-necked Grebe sitting on the frozen surface not far away. Red-necked Grebes are scarce around here and spend the winter in small numbers in ocean waters feeding on small fish. They nest in Arctic tundra ponds during the summer. I had never seen one in freshwater on the island and never heard of or seen one on ice before.

That this bird was in serious trouble by landing on ice that it mistook for water was obvious. Grebes are a specialized family of birds adapted for life on and under the water. They dive using their large modified feet with lobed webs to propel them in pursuit of fish. Grebes are awkward on land and unable to walk because their legs are positioned so far back at the tail end of their body. They can only take off from water by running along the surface in a long take-off run before attaining a high enough speed to get airborne.

This bird was doomed as it would never get back in the air, and with all the large raptors like Red-tailed Hawks and Snowy Owls around, it would not take long for it to become a meal, as it was helpless and hapless on the ice. The best we could hope for was that we could catch it and not injure it then release it into the ocean, which would have been very stressful for all concerned.  

The Grebe Rescue Team sprang into action with Dan and Janet out on ice attempting to direct the grebe to flee towards me. It did, where it crashed into a snowbank at the edge of the pond and I missed capturing it with my jacket by mere inches. The panicked bird turned as I gave chase. It began picking up speed as if speed skating and flapping along over the top of the ice. It kept going and miraculously, very laboriously, after what seemed like hundreds of yards and an eternity, got airborne, slowly gaining altitude while the cheering observers were jumping for joy. It headed for Low Beach and the safety of open water accompanied by loud cheers of delight from the Grebe Rescue Team. It was the best possible outcome.