A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Horned Grebe is common in Sonoma County along the coast, mostly in the winter months, and less common, but occasionally present on ponds and other freshwater bodies inland. Fairly indiscriminate during migration, when Horned Grebe may turn up on any large body of water. A few birds may begin to arrive in the county as early as late August, but most start arriving in early October, staying through May, although it is not unusual for a small number of birds to remain over the summer, notably at Bodega Bay. It’s mostly these birds we see in the breeding plumage that gives Horned Grebe its name. The "horns" referred to are actually tufts of gold-beige feathers on either side of the head (photos below). Usually solitary, but sometimes moves in small groups. Excellent divers, Horned Grebes can stay underwater for a couple of minutes at a time and will often resurface at great distances from where they were last seen, which can make it tricky to re-find a bird that has just disappeared.

In Sonoma County, we mostly see Horned Grebe and the somewhat similar-looking Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) in drab winter, or non-breeding, plumage. In winter plumage (as above), Horned Grebe is dark grey on top but pale below (from a little above the water line down). The foreneck, chin, and side of the face are white with the white extending toward the back of the neck. The back of the neck, the nape, and crown are dark, like the back. Bright red eye in all plumages, but the eye may be brighter in breeding season. The bill is comparatively short and stout for a grebe, but not at all like the fat, chunky bill of Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps). The bill is usually dark, usually with a whitish tip, but the tip color can be very hard to see in the field. Subtly paler in front of the eye, but this light spot, too, can be very hard to see, except at close range, and on some birds it is not prominent. Neck shade in winter plumage is variable; some birds have considerable grey on the upper part of the neck.

Breeding plumage is distinctive (see photos below). Look for the bright red eye set in the tufts of golden feathers on the sides of the head (much fuller than the splayed, rather delicate, wispy plumes that Eared Grebe develops in breeding season); dark brownish-grey head; rufous neck; dark, mottled back; reddish, warm-toned sides. More subtle marks include the pale bill tip and pale spot in front of the eye mentioned above (again, these are not easy to see, except at close range). Note that the field guides often exaggerate the breeding marks, showing the tufts raised and the cheeks puffed out and distended. Birds may have this appearance, but, just as often, the tufts are down and the cheek feathers are lying flat against the head, especially while the bird is actively diving (compare photos below). Also, the hue of the neck and sides is often shown as a deep red-brown, but most birds I've seen are considerably paler than that. The bird in the photos below seems fairly typical to me. Finally, note that the Peterson Guides refer to a "chestnut cheek," which seems wrong. The cheek of Horned Grebe in breeding plumage usually appears dark grey-brown to me, more grey than brown (and even the color in the Peterson Guide illustrations does not look like "chestnut"). Many field guides describe the head color in this plumage as “black,” which seems to go to the other extreme.     

Often confused with Eared 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 (some birders call the latter "puff-butts"), but, while the tendency may provide a helpful clue, it is not a reliable way to distinguish the two birds when not in their distinctive breeding clothes. Likewise, Horned Grebe usually has a pale neck in winter plumage, Eared Grebe a grey neck, but there is considerable 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 Horned and Eared 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) Horned Grebe has a rather wedge-shaped head (if we 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. In contrast, Eared Grebe has a proportionately small, roundish head (often with a peaked look), and its more slender, pointed bill appears less an integral part of the head. 2) 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 the 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. Eared Grebe has dark grey extending down into the cheek, and the line between the light and dark areas is usually quite diffuse. In other words, in the most general terms, a wedge-shaped head with a clearly edged strip of dark on the crown 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. 14

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

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. 92-93

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

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 42

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 76

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

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 42, 43

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. 78

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 83

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Horned 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.


Horned Grebe, Bodega Bay, June 20, 2011, in breeding plumage: The raised "horns" and puffed out cheek feathers are distinctive features of this plumage, but both sets of feathers may be sleeked down, appearing far less obvious

Horned Grebe, Bodega Bay, June 24, 2011, in breeding plumage:

The "horns" and cheek feathers here are sleeked down, appearing less obvious than may sometimes be the case

Horned Grebe (winter plumage), Campbell Cove, Bodega Bay, December 27, 2012

For comparison: Eared Grebe, in non-breeding plumage: Note small, roundish head with a peaked look; small, slender bill; much more grey on face than in Horned Grebe in non-breeding plumage

Horned Grebe

Podilymbus auritus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 15, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County