5MR Lifer: Red-necked Grebe at Marina del Rey
It’s been a somewhat slow early winter for rarities in my 5MR. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, I believe. There don’t seem to be as many people birding the usual popular spots in my 5MR, and therefore the rarities that are undoubtedly there are not being found. But there are probably fewer people birding the spots in my 5MR because no one is reporting rarities. We’ve all seen it before – one good bird is found in a spot, a bunch of nerds with binoculars converge, and more rarities are found.
Anyhoodle, I went for a midday bike ride down the creek to Playa del Rey the other day, not expecting to find anything usual. And I didn’t, until I ventured out onto the middle jetty. About 70 yards ahead in the channel, there was another loon-ish bird. But it looked different. It seemed in-between the bigger loons/Western Grebes and the smaller Eared/Horned Grebes. The profile wasn’t right for a cormorant. I got it in my binoculars and knew right away it was a good find: a Red-necked Grebe.
I snapped a quick photo with my pocket zoom camera, and biked ahead to get a closer look. As I was headed out the jetty, a jet skier was coming in from the ocean, right for the grebe. Before I could get to the spot, the Red-necked Grebe flushed. As it did, I saw two white flashes in the wing, one on the trailing edge and another at the front edge. It was a strange bird to see fly. It looked like a cormorant that had swallowed a cantaloupe, with a spatula stuck to its backside.
The bird initially headed in towards the marina, and landed on the water. Just as I hopping on my bike to go back and try for a closer look, it took flight again. This time, it was headed more or less right toward me. I snapped a few shots of the bird in flight, and watched it sail off south parallel to Playa del Rey. I didn’t see it land, and there’s no telling how far south it flew. There are large rafts of Surf Scoters and Western/Clark’s Grebes along that stretch of beach. But picking it out in the afternoon sun without a scope would have been difficult, if it was even there.
Red-necked Grebes are rare in Los Angeles County. I’d seen one before at Castaic Lake, where it is almost annual, at great distance. They are much rarer along the coast. The regular February Pasadena Audubon pelagic spotted one a mile off shore this year. But other than that, the last report in Santa Monica Bay was from 2014. They breed in Canada and Alaska, and winter along northern ocean coasts. Fun fact about Red-necked Grebes: they ingest large quantities of their own feathers. Theirs stomachs apparently have two distinct balls of feathers whose function is unknown. One thought is the feathers help protect the lower digestive tract from bones and other hard, indigestible material.
The Red-necked Grebe was actually the second addition to my 5MR life list in the past week. For whatever reason, it’s been a mini-invasion winter of Pine Siskin into the Los Angeles basin. I figured the best bet was the goldfinch feeder in the Japanese Garden at Kenneth Hahn park. And I was right. Slowly but surely, 300 species for my 5MR is coming into sight.