Pied-billed grebe (Podylimbus podiceps) and Horned grebe (Podiceps auritus) - local seasonal appearance

Based on 4 observations in Seymour township, Northumberland county, southeast Ontario, June 1998- April 2021.

The grebes are a widespread family of small to medium-sized waterbirds, found around the northern hemisphere, and beyond. There are some 20 species worldwide. They have short wings and minimal tails. They migrate at night, and in the day feed in the water, their natural habitat. I have seen grebes, always in small numbers, in Ontario and Michigan, British Columbia and Beijing, and in similar agreeable wetland and pond habitats in southern England (as at the birding hotspot of Abberton reservoir in Essex). Groups of up to 6-9 grebes may be seen on occasion along the Lake Ontario shore, including Presqu'ile park and the wider Quinte region.

The pied-billed grebe is a distinctive little bird. Juveniles were noted on the Trent canal in Campbellford on 28 October 2017 and 25 July 2020. The 500 metres upstream from the swing-bridge (above locks 11-12) is a particularly worthwhile area for waterfowl, including ducks and the rarer grebes. On 12 September 1998, a guided walk at Presqu'ile park (see below) with naturalist Steve LaForest revealed many waterbirds, including six pied-billed grebes bobbing in the water about 100 metres south of Presqu'ile Point.

The horned grebe is a larger species, and quite colourful in its breeding plumage. One was seen on the lower reach of Trout Creek in Campbellford on 18 September 2000. That summer, on 12 August 2000, a horned grebe was noted at Kings Mill conservation area in adjacent Rawden township. Note that, westwards of Ontario, the eared grebe (Pocideps nigricollis) is an abundant species. It occurs in Ontario, but mostly in the west, as around Rainy River. One grebe sighting by D.R. on the Trent river, around 12 April 2014, was at the time thought to be an eared grebe, but - absent evidence to hand - I have plotted it here as a horned grebe. This is because of the local rarity of the eared grebe, as noted in the following references.

View the complete 22-year (1999- Apr. 2021) monthly data summary (232-kb pdf file).

Across Lake Ontario, in upstate New York (Levine, 1998, pp.98-102) the horned grebe is an abundant migrant, the pied-billed rather less so, while the eared grebe is a rare but regular migrant on the Great Lakes, mainly from mid-October to late April.

The grebes, in the wider Kingston region to our immediate south and southeast (Weir, 1989, pp.46-49), are represented in greatest numbers by the pied-billed grebe, which on average arrives around 19 March and departs circa 14 November. It is a fairly common summer resident and migrant, with occasional winter sightings. The horned grebe is a regular spring and autumn migrant, numbers peaking in late April and in October and early November. The eared grebe, in contrast, is a rare migrant to and from the prairies, and - like other grebes - may be found, if at all, in the Prince Edward Point area of southeast Prince Edward county.

At Presqu'ile provincial park, roughly 40 km to the south of us, the pied-billed grebe is a common migrant and summer resident, often seen in the marsh, and confirmed to breed (LaForest, 1993, pp.28-32). The horned grebe is a common migrant, mid-March to late May, and again from late September to mid-December. At the time of publication, there had been just two spring records of eared grebe at the park, and an autumn appearance at Brighton sewage lagoon. One would perhaps have more luck sighting a fourth type of grebe, a larger species, the red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena), an uncommon migrant. In Peterborough county, to the northwest, the pied-billed grebe is a common spring migrant and uncommon breeding species, less often seen in fall migration (Sadler, 1983, pp.35-36). The horned grebe is seen in migration, generally in late March and early April, along the Otonabee River and on Little Lake. The red-necked grebe is an uncommon spring migrant. Sadler notes that loons and grebes may land on icy or wet roads, and be unable to take off again, sometimes needing to be released.

Across Ontario, evidences of breeding for the horned grebe and red-necked grebe (like the eared grebe, more of a western species) are extremely rare (Cadman et al., 1987, pp.38-43). However, in the revised Bird Breeding Atlas (Cadman et al., 2007, pp.142-149) the pied-billed grebe is affirmed as a widespread breeding species, especially in southeast Ontario. It is often found in wetlands with open water (the Marsh Boardwalk at Presqu'ile comes to mind). The horned grebe breeds up along the Manitoba border. The red-necked grebe also breeds in far northwest Ontario, and also on the far west shore of Lake Ontario, west and south from Toronto. The eared grebe - notwithstanding its rarity in our area - is "by far the most numerous and cosmopolitan of the grebes", forming large colonies in its prairie heartland. Still a rare annual migrant in spring and fall, it is also a very rare and occasional breeding species in the northwest of Ontario, e.g., around Rainy River.


Cadman,MD, Eagles,PFJ and Helleiner,FM (1987) Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. Federation of Ontario Naturalists and Long Point Bird Observatory, published by University of Waterloo Press, 617pp.

Cadman,MD, Sutherland,DA, Beck,GG, Lepage,D and Couturier,AR (editors) (2007) Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005. Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature, 706pp.

LaForest,SM (1993) Birds of Presqu'ile Provincial Park. Friends of Presqu'ile Park / Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 436pp.

Levine,E (editor) (1998) Bull's Birds of New York State. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, revised version, 622pp.

Sadler,D (1983) Our Heritage of Birds: Peterborough County in the Kawarthas. Peterborough Field Naturalists / Orchid Press, Peterborough, ON, 192pp.

Weir,RD (1989) Birds of the Kingston Area. Quarry Press, 608pp. plus map.

Graham Wilson, posted 12-14 April 2021

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