A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Eared Grebe is common in Sonoma County along the coast, mostly in the winter months, and less common, but present on freshwater ponds, etc. inland. A few birds may begin to arrive in the county as early as mid-September, but most arrive in mid-October, staying through late April, with a few stragglers into May. A small number of birds may remain over the summer, notably at Bodega Bay. Eared Grebe is often solitary but sometimes fishes in groups of up to 100 or more birds. Excellent divers, Eared Grebes can stay underwater for long periods and may resurface at great distances from where they were last seen, which can make it tricky to find a bird that has just disappeared underwater.

In Sonoma County, we mostly see Eared Grebe (and the somewhat similar-looking Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) in its drab winter, or non-breeding, plumage. In winter plumage (photo above), Eared Grebe is dark grey on top but paler below. The nape and crown are dark, like the back, while the chin and lower cheek are white, with much of the side of the face a diffuse grey gradually paler below. The neck is usually grey, but with the grey fading into white both above and below. Note, however, that the neck shade in winter plumage is variable; some birds have considerably less grey on the neck than others. Whiter at the breast. Eared Grebe has a bright red eye in all plumages, but the eye may be brighter in breeding season. The bill is short and slender and usually dark, lacking the whitish tip of Horned Grebe. Typically the proportionately small head has a slightly peaked look, and the bird’s back often a puffed-up look. Some birders refer to Eared Grebes as "puff-butts," but this alone is not a reliable field mark. Wet feathers can greatly change the silhouette.

Breeding plumage is distinctive. Look for the bright red eye and a set of splayed, rather delicate, wispy golden plumes at the "ear" (hence the name), against a very dark grey (almost black) head and neck. The bird's back will be dark as well, shading into dark reddish brown at the waterline (photo below). 

Often confused with Horned Grebe in winter plumage. People note that Horned Grebe has a sloping rear end, while Eared Grebe tends to have a puffy, raised look behind. While the tendency may provide a helpful clue, this alone is not a reliable way to distinguish the two birds when not in their distinctive breeding clothes. Likewise, Eared Grebe usually has a grey neck in winter plumage, Horned Grebe a white neck, but there is great variability in both birds, so neck color alone is of little use.

Looking at head shape, size, and the pattern of light and dark on the head are the best ways to separate Eared and Horned Grebe, but, sometimes it may simply be impossible to identify birds bobbing on water at long distances or in poor light. If you can see the head, however, note the following: 1) Eared Grebe has a proportionately small, roundish head (although often with a peaked look), and its slender, pointed bill appears slightly upturned relative to the head, which creates a nearly 90-degree angle between the bill and forehead. Horned Grebe has a rather wedge-shaped head (if you think of the head and bill as a whole). That is, relative to Eared Grebe, the head is flatter on top, the top of the head and the bill form a straighter angle, and the head itself appears larger and more square, broadening toward the back. 2) Eared Grebe has dark grey extending down into the cheek, and the line between the light and dark areas of the heard are usually quite diffuse. Horned Grebe has much more white on the face than Eared Grebe, and this alone can be enough to distinguish the two, once you learn the look. The white cheek of Horned Grebe is clearly separated from the dark on its crown. As a result, Horned Grebe often looks to me like it's wearing a badly fitting toupee; the dark appears to be sitting on top of the head. In other words, in the most general terms, a wedge-shaped head with a clearly edged strip of dark on top and a mostly clear white cheek should indicate Horned Grebe, while a small, roundish, head with diffuse grey on a cheek only moderately paler than the dark grey cap should indicate Eared Grebe.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 15

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 70

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 187

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 74

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 72

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 94-95

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 10

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 44

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 77

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 56

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 43-44

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 13

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 28

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 66

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 26

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 30

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 80

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 84   

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Eared Grebe



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


For Comparison: Horned Grebe, in non-breeding plumage: Note stouter bill; low angle of forehead giving wedge-shaped look to the head; dark crown clearly delineated from the white cheek; all pale neck; flat, low back; pale spot in front of the eye.

Eared Grebe in the distinctive breeding plumage we rarely see in Sonoma County.

(Lower Klamath Wildlife Preserve, near Tule Lake, California, July 21, 2011)

Eared Grebe

Podiceps nigricollis

Eared Grebe, Lake Merced (San Francisco County), January 23. 2010

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated June 29, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County