A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Recognized by its black cap and long, almost swan-like white neck with dark, slate-grey trim at the back, Western Grebe is among our most elegant-looking birds. Very similar to Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) and not uncommonly found in the company of that bird (the north end of Bodega Bay can be an excellent spot to see the two species together). Likes large rushy lakes or bays or open ocean near the coast. Often found in large groups (frequently with a few Clark's Grebe mixed in). In the spring, adults may be seen carrying downy chicks on their backs. The American Ornithological Union split Western Grebe and Clark's Grebe into two species in 1985. Older sources will refer to both birds as Western Grebe.  

Western Grebe and Clark's Grebe are not hard to tell apart--if you can get a good look at the bird in question. Both are content to spend long periods of time resting with their necks tucked in (see photo below), which can make identification very difficult, but, once a head pops up, all that's required is attention to the color of the bill and the pattern of white on the head. Western Grebe has a green-tinged yellow bill. Clark's Grebe has a somewhat heavier bill that is usually markedly brighter and of yellow-orange hue. In Western Grebe, the bright red eye is surrounded by the dark grey of the top of the head so that the area between the eye and bill (the lores) is dark. In Clark's Grebe the dark stops above the eye, leaving the lores white. Clark's Grebe always seems to me to be wearing a badly fitted black toupee. Note, however, that during the winter months the lores in Western Grebe become somewhat paler, and the dark areas of the head expand somewhat in the case of Clark's Grebe, which makes the head patterns of the two birds more similar. Bill color and voice (see below) seem to be the most reliable distinguishing features. The back and flanks of Clark's Grebe are paler, which is a useful clue when the two birds are swimming together. When distant, bill color is often the easiest difference to see. In my opinion, the illustrations in field guides often fail to show the difference in bill color adequately. In this respect, the National Geographic guides seem more accurate than the Peterson guides or Sibley.

Voice can be very useful. Western Grebe gives a high-pitched two-part, creaky-sounding kree-kreed, while Clark's Grebe calls with a similar but longer single note. Listening to hundreds of Western and Clark's Grebes "creaking" in the early morning in late winter and early spring (when they seem to be most vocal) can be a beautiful, if eerie, experience.

In some conditions, it's just not possible to say which is which. In that case, you can call your bird an Aechmophorus grebe and leave it at that. To complicate matters, the two species are known to hybridize occasionally.

Trivia: According to Birds of Northern California, the genus name Aechmophorous derives from the Greek words aichme and phoreus, which together mean "spear bearer."

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. 69

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 76

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 74

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 95-96

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 6

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 45

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 79

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

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 30-33

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 44-46, 47

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. 32

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 81

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 85 

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

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Clark's 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.


In typical resting posture, Western Grebe and Clark's Grebe can be difficult to distinguish, particularly at a distance

For comparison: Clark's Grebe--Note the comparatively pale back and sides,

the way the dark areas of the head do not enclose the eye,

and the orange-yellow bill

Western Grebe, Porto Bodega, Bodega Bay, April 24, 2012

Side by side comparison: Western Grebe in front, Clark's Grebe behind (with a Surf Scoter)

The difference in bill color is obvious. Note also the black surrounding the eye in Western Grebe

and the somewhat paler back and flanks in Clark's Grebe. North-end Bodega Bay, May 19, 2012.

Western Grebe

Aechmophorus occidentalis

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 18, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County