Mystery Bird: Black-necked Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis

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[Mystery bird] Eared Grebe, also known as the Black-necked Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis, photographed in Monterey Bay, California. [I will identify this bird for you in 48 hours]

Image: Joseph Kennedy, 5 May 2010 [larger view].

Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope with TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/1000s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.

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

This migratory species, photographed in California, is challenging to distinguish from another, closely-related species, particularly in non-breeding plumage -- guess which plumage this bird is in? Can you identify this species?

This is a Black-necked (Eared) Grebe in transitional/non-breeding plumage. This species is closely related to the Horned (Slavonian) Grebe, Podiceps auritus, and both species look very similar, especially in transitional/non-breeding plumage. But the two species are distinguished by:

  1. Black-necked (Eared) Grebe (non-breeding plumage): more gradual transition between sooty crown plumage coloring to white in the lower part of the face; Horned (Slavonian) Grebe (non-breeding plumage) shows very sharp and clear border between dark cap and white plumage on lower portion of the face.
  2. Black-necked (Eared) Grebe (non-breeding plumage): throat region is grey (a bit difficult to see in this photo); Horned (Slavonian) Grebe (non-breeding plumage) has a white throat.
  3. Black-necked (Eared) Grebe: rear end sticks up above water; Horned (Slavonian) Grebe rear end slopes down to water.
  4. Black-necked (Eared) Grebe: forehead angles upward to crested head plumage; Horned (Slavonian) Grebe forehead not angled as sharply upward, no crest on head.
  5. Black-necked (Eared) Grebe: thin dark bill tilts slightly upward; Horned (Slavonian) Grebe thin bill has a white/pale tip and is not tilted upward (I also think the bill is heavier at the base than for the Black-necked Grebe, but maybe my eyes deceive me?).

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Looks like a grebe in non-breeding plumage to me (or a female). Can't specify much more than that - but the slightly-crested head shape and red eyes are a give-away for me

I think it is a grebe in non-breeding plumage also. Two species are very close but I think this one can be figured out from the peaked head versus a more flat shape and the thinner, more pointy bill. The males and females have the same plumage so I don't think you could tell them apart. I would think most birds would be in breeding plumage by May. This one must be a "late bloomer."

By Ken Trease (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

Two votes for a grebe already - OK, I'll throw out another guess - with the dark head but some white on the chin/neck, and the dark bill - could be a Common Loon in winter plumage (that's a Great Northern Diver for folks on the other side of the pond)

Horned Grebe or Eared? It appears to be in transitional plumage, so the call is tough. Both migrate through Monterey though eared are much more common. Bright red (rather than orange-red) eye, if the color can be relied on, seems closer to typical horned. But there should be a white bill tip-- absence suggests eared. The dark neck would say eared if it wasn't transitional, as it is that could go either way. I'm going to place my bet on eared, Podiceps nigricollis, based on the hint of yellow above (rather than below)the beak, what I take to be all-dark feathers developing,and what appears (even from behind) to be a "high-stern shape". I'd love to see another picture taken a month later!

By PH Lippel (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

One feature that hasn't been mentioned yet is the bill shape. It appears to be ever so slightly upturned because the lower mandible angles up to the tip. That's enough for me to join the Eared (Black-necked) Grebe camp.

By Pete Moulton (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

Aha, something a Brit-based birder can identify. Steep forehead, the dark cap extending down to the cheeks, and the hint of an upturn on the bill all point to Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis.

Unless it's some Neararctic lookalike I've never heard of...

I like the Grebe identification but am going to suggest it's a Western Grebe. Dark head, white neck with dark stripe down the back and dark wings. Red eye, too. It's a common bird here in Sonoma County, about 3 hours north of Monterey Bay.

Divers/Loons yesterday, Black-necked/Eared and Slavonian/Horned today. I think Grrl is trying to stir up a Trans-Atlantic ding-dong!
I agree with Beardos on this one, so us Brits are sticking together.