Published Dec. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Risking nice Wyoming weather, grebes, loons get caught.”
By Barb Gorges
You probably recognize that sinking feeling I had the morning of Nov. 10 when we cleared Denver traffic and a solid wall of cloud was suddenly visible 50-60 miles away, between us and home.
The rain, predicted for afternoon, started around 9 a.m. at Fort Collins, Colorado. In a few miles it turned to flakes. The road surface quickly iced as we climbed in elevation.
Northbound traffic slowed to a crawl, but only because there was a traffic jam of emergency vehicles gathered near the Colorado-Wyoming state line, where vehicles slid off the interstate earlier. One was lying on its roof.
No matter how slowly, we were happy to still be creeping toward home.
Some birds, however, were not as lucky with the weather.
One would think that migratory birds would be tuned into changes, but even they can be caught unawares.
If you remember that week, along with the snow, the temperatures dropped into negative numbers at night. My husband was contemplating an early start to the ice fishing season.
On Nov. 14, I had a bird call–people wondering how to help a Western grebe found at the plant west of town. They took it to the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, which is licensed to handle wild birds.
The bird had to be euthanized because a wing joint was broken and couldn’t be repaired. Veterinarian Christopher Church said two other grebes were rescued and brought in that week and staff were able to release them at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Later that day, a Wyobirds report came in about a loon stuck in a small bit of open water, unable to take off. Someone in the Riverton area reported eared grebes, I think it was, also getting stuck.
Grebes and loons have bodies evolved for swimming underwater, not walking. Their legs are at the back of their bodies, like an outboard motor, and not under their center of gravity, like a normal bird.
Because their feet do all the work when underwater, their wings are small. And their bones are not light and hollow like a songbird’s, but dense, making it easier to dive. Flying is difficult for them.
Ornithologist Joel Carl Welty calculated a loon’s wing-load, square centimeters of wing area to bird weight in grams, as 0.6. On the other hand, a black-capped chickadee is 6.1–comparatively buoyant. A Leach’s petrel, an ocean-going bird, finds flying extremely easy at 9.5.
So, these heavy loons and grebes, hardly ever trying to move around on land, can only take to the air by flapping while pattering their feet against the water surface, Loons need as much as 650 feet for takeoff , according to Arthur Cleveland Bent, another ornithologist.
You can see where this is going. The grebe tucks its head under its wing one night and the next morning looks around at new ice hemming it in. “Oh crud.”
The loon in the Wyobirds report kept busy diving for fish, and even tried walking a bit on the ice, but the next day, when the little bit of open water had frozen over, and the same observer went back, she saw no trace of the loon—not a feather or drop of blood, despite the bald eagles hanging around. It’s quite unlikely that it flew. Perhaps the ice was finally thick enough for someone to walk out and rescue it, or for a predator to carry it off.
Ducks, which are better-balanced, need little space to take off, but have managed to become trapped in ice also.
What happened to the grebe with the broken wing? Grebe species migrate at night. Apparently, they can get disoriented in snowstorms or fog or get confused by the sight of a wet parking lot shining in reflected lights, and hit it hard, thinking it’s water.
The common loon migrates through Wyoming, as do three species of grebes we see most often: pied-billed, eared and Western. Doug Faulkner, in “Birds of Wyoming,” describes their fall migration patterns, always mentioning that a few individual birds don’t leave until the reservoirs freeze up.
For these risk takers, the later they stay, the fewer birds they have to share the food source with. Some years, the bet pays off and they are better fed when they arrive on the wintering grounds, reaping the benefits, such as better reproduction. But then again, maybe they don’t make it.
After surviving this latest, unexpectedly dicey road trip, our weather forecasting being not much better than the lingerers’, I’m wondering if we should have taken a lesson from all the smart loons and grebes that headed out by October for their ice-free wintering grounds.