Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] Least Grebe, also known as the Least Dabchick and the American Dabchick, Tachybaptus dominicus, photographed at Brazos Bend State Park, Needville, Texas. [I will identify this bird for you in 48 hours]

Image: Joseph Kennedy, 27 December 2009 [larger view].

Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope with TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/320s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 John Callender
    January 5, 2010

    I’m abstaining on this one, because I accidentally enjoyed it already while checking the answers in the back of the book for a previous mystery bird.

    Neat shot, though!

  2. #2 zoo713
    January 5, 2010

    Those feet look grebe-ish – looking at range maps and coloration, I am gonna’ say an Eared Grebe (podiceps nigricollis) in winter plummage

  3. #3 David Hilmy
    January 5, 2010

    Thanks for your honesty John, I found “the back of the book” yesterday when I was looking for a rear shot of an American Coot and knowing that I might happen upon his photos again has put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm for researching stuff to the “nth” degree…

    if zoo713 sees a grebe (I will have to wait til I get home to access the photo), the Latin used for the genus Podiceps is very grebe-like, somewhat akin to “ass-kicking” coming from a combination of podicis meaning “anus” and pes meaning “foot” presumably referring to the rear placement the feet in that species… nigricollis kinda speaks for itself, “black-necked”, the alternate (preferred?) name for the Eared Grebe…

    I would love some more of your “forensic” photos (I find that identifying dead birds in hand a lot more difficult than seeing them live when their behavior and “attitude” help a great deal) which pretty much allows one free reign to investigate, inquire, research, surmise, and then… gamble!

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    January 5, 2010

    hrm. i like dead bird pics, too. i have one (maybe two?) photographs of dead birds that i snapped while in finland .. i’ll see if i can locate those and post the for you. (i am certain they are on my extra memory — which is somewhere between NYC, London and here, sigh!). otherwise, i am open to publishing other people’s dead bird photos as the daily mystery bird … *hint* *hint*

  5. #5 Adrian
    January 5, 2010

    The lobed feet make this a Grebe. Of the three, Slavonian (Horned), Black-necked (Eared) and Pied-billed that could occur in Texas in winter Pied-billed doesn’t show white in the wing, Slavonian has white in the forewing which leaves Black-necked. In non-breeding plumage sides, flanks and vent are pale grey with strong sooty-grey feather tips and primaries fade to sepia brown in winter, so yes a Black-necked Grebe.

  6. #6 David Hilmy
    January 5, 2010

    Adrian, I have found a couple of records showing occasional Least Grebes also wintering at Brazos Bend, here and here

    This might be an interesting quick little guide to identifying the seven species of Grebe found in Texas

  7. #7 David Hilmy
    January 5, 2010

    Finally home, and yes I agree, a great shot of this bird, however… !

    zoo713 and Adrian have it spot on with the lobed toes being that of a grebe as opposed to the webbed feet of ducks, as can also be seen in this close-up of a Western Grebe’s feet (Aechmophorus occidentalis)…

    What concerns me is not just the relative size of this bird compared to the dandelion in the foreground, but also the “fluffiness” of the rear end and also the extent of the brown coloring in the wings- I would have expected to see little or none in the two choices most have asserted (Horned versus Eared) as can be seen in this side-by-side photo of a Horned and an Eared Grebe in winter plumage– take away the bill shape and face/neck patterns, there not much to choose from, but I see no brown and relatively long rear ends!

    And I know you’re going to hate me for this Adrian, but I would suggest that you kick back with una cerveza del Presidente and seek out that “fast diver”!

  8. #8 Maggie Moo
    January 5, 2010

    Ahhh, Presidente, the best beer in the Dominican Republic! Wait, was that another hint?

  9. #9 psweet
    January 5, 2010

    I agree with David that there is something not quite right about this bird, at least as far as calling it an Eared (when in Rome, sorry, Adrian). What’s really annoying about it is that the only guide to show anything decent about a Grebe’s wings is Sibley’s, and it would be nice to have something (photographic, preferably) to back that up.

    What bugs me is the very pale primaries. All three of the grebes in question (Eared, Horned, and Least) should show white secondaries, but in Least the white appears to blend into the primaries, in Horned the primaries appear to be a bit pale (but palest along the feather shaft), and in Eared the primaries appear to be dark, contrasting with the secondaries but not the coverts. Additionally, in Least, the tertials should be dark, whereas in this bird they are pale, although not as white on the secondaries. (Oh, and Adrian — my only reference shows white on the forewing of Horned, but only in the summer.)

    All of this goes to show that sometimes the field guides are insufficient, I guess.

    As far as the actual ID, I think I’ll leave that for others more bold than I.

  10. #10 David Hilmy
    January 5, 2010

    Maggie, very good! It was indeed a hint, the specific name for this species referring to the island of Hispaniola’s 18th-century name of Santo Domingo, now of course the capital of the Dominican Republic. (Although I suspect that Adrian is rather partial to Sam Smith’s!)

    Paul, the following three photos seem to provide some clues: the first by Greg Lasley demonstrates what I could only call the “fluffiness” of the rear end, significantly short and compact, and this is supported by the second by Helen Baines, actually from Brazos Bend State Park; the third by Steve Baranoff is a great shot of the bird’s open wings demonstrating the white and brown feathers in question- that this particular species is rarely in flight may explain why very few detail the wings for identification.

  11. #11 David Hilmy
    January 5, 2010

    Paul, photos coming (especially one of the wings) if they get through moderation!

  12. #12 Adrian
    January 5, 2010

    The reference I am using is “Grebes” by Jon Fjeldsa pub. Oxford University Press. This shows Least (Tachybaptus dominicus) (Thanks for the clue Maggie Moo I didn’t know the beer David referred to)as having black tips to all but the innermost flight feathers and black primaries. Eared retains the flight feathers until it reaches the autumn and/or winter grounds by which time they have faded to sepia brown as in my first post and the grey(or is that gray, Paul?) feather tips extends under the podicis, shouldn’t these be white in Least David? Also is that a dent-de-lion in the foreground or the flower stalk of a waterlily?

  13. #13 David Hilmy
    January 5, 2010

    With reference to the white, I understand that the Least Grebe has white wing patches that are often concealed (3rd Edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds) with the white on the upper surfaces of the remiges (Cornell Lab) which I think is demonstrated nicely in the photo above… by the way, the same Peterson reference notes “puffy undertail coverts.”

    My refrence to a “fast diver” and Presidente beer was indeed to imply Tachybaptus dominicus, from the Greek ταχος (tahkos) for “speed” and βαπτς (baptus) for “dive”… the only subspecies that would be probable for south Texas would be T. d. brachypterus (“short-winged”)

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