On Lake Hodges in Escondido, California, a low fog drifted over the glassy lake surface as we snaked quietly through trees by grabbing branches to move our small boat. The first rays of sunrise were chasing away the pre-dawn grays, adding a strange glow to the misty blanket.
I was with Del Dios resident Brian Caldwell, photo-naturalist and owner of Lake Hodges Photo Tours (lakehodgesphototours.com). Our goal was to move silently into position to capture the nesting of grebes and the care and feeding of their seriously cute chicks.
Even at this early hour, the rushing sound of thousands of cars passing on nearby I-15 was a constant drone. Sadly, most of those commuters had no idea that one of nature’s most interesting bird events was happening just below them.
Lake Hodges in Escondido, California is a haven for both Western and Clark’s grebes. And the tangled thickets of trees at the shallower, back end of the lake have become an important nesting ground for these beautiful birds. For the next month at least, the grebes will engage in their unique courting rituals, build nests on floating platforms among the trees, and raise their youngsters, to the delight of birders and wildlife photographers.
Birders can see much of this from some of the trails around Lake Hodges, but the very best way to view the grebes and their chicks is by boat.
Caldwell lives adjacent to Lake Hodges and knows exactly where active nests are, the best times and angles for lighting, and most of all how to approach respectfully without disturbing the birds.
Lake Hodges offers significant habitat that both Western and Clark’s grebes have adopted. The two species are quite similar and most easily distinguished by the black cap on the head. The cap on the Western grebe extends below the bright red eye, while it curves up and over the eye on the Clark’s grebe. A smaller species called the eared grebe can also be found locally.
These two similar species of grebes are large, elegant birds identified by their yellow beaks, white necks, a black cap that extends down the back of the neck, bright red eyes, and black upper feathers.
Both grebe species have wingspans of about 32 inches.
These are water birds, common on local lakes and marshes, but the habitat conditions at Lake Hodges make this a favorite place for concentrated populations, especially during the nesting season.
Grebes are primarily fish eaters, and they use their pointed bills to either spear or grasp small fish by dipping into the water or diving completely under the surface.
One of the most fascinating rituals of the grebes is an elaborate courtship dance known as rushing.
The courtship begins with a pairing where birds begin by swimming closely together. As things progress, they often entwine necks, head bob and sometimes exchange bits of pond weed. It’s all an elaborate, choreographed ritual.
As interest grows, the pair will suddenly erupt in the rushing movement where they lunge forward simultaneously as if running over the surface of the water. They lift completely out of the water with their long necks stretched forward, then both suddenly plunge underwater. It is a thrilling thing to watch.
Once courtship is complete, grebes move to nesting locations where eggs are laid. Soon, silvery gray chicks hatch, and before long the downy fluff balls are riding on the backs of attentive parents. Eventually, they will slip off and swim alongside the parent birds but then slip back on board and nestle down in the deep feathers.
On this foggy Lake Hodges morning, we slipped into perfect position to quietly watch parents and chicks. Along the way, we encountered great egrets, an American bittern, phainopepla and ospray, and on a recent weekend, Caldwell got some beautiful images of a bald eagle on his way to nesting grounds.
During our early morning mission, we even saved a life, retrieving a blackbird chick that had fallen from the nest into the lake. Caldwell moved the boat into position, and I was able to catch the little guy and put him back in the nest before mom even knew he was gone.
Lake Hodges is one of San Diego’s most prolific birding areas, and grebe season is one of the most spectacular times to visit.
Cowan is a freelance writer based in Escondido. Email him at BirdandErnie@gmail.com or follow him at erniesoutdoors.blogspot.com.