A Marooned Grebe

Without a proper ‘runway’, horned grebes are unable to achieve lift-off, effectively leaving them stranded if they happen to land in small watering holes.

June 6, 2024 | | Notes from the Wild

Imagine a stopover on a flight home, only to find that all outgoing flights are postponed and further, that you are not permitted to leave the airport. This is akin to the dilemma facing a male horned grebe stranded on a pond in Mono.

Horned grebes are diving waterfowl that winter along North America’s Atlantic coast and breed on prairie sloughs and boreal forest wetlands. Some migrate through southern Ontario, including Headwaters, touching down occasionally to rest and feed at ponds and lakes.

horned grebe ontario
A horned grebe at rest. Photos by Don Scallen.

On May 12, the grebe landed on a pond on Sue and Rob Best’s rural Mono property. There he refuelled – snacking on abundant stickleback fish. Then, attempting to resume his journey, he found he had made a fateful error. 

Like airplanes, grebes need long “runways” to get airborne. Rob and Sue’s pond simply didn’t offer enough length to permit lift-off. Grebes run across the water surface to gain lift, powered by flapping wings. Apparently if they can’t reach 20 steps per second, they’re grounded.

Animal rehabilitation organizations expressed sympathy for the bird’s plight, but were not able to offer active assistance. 

horned grebe ontario
A marooned horned grebe, at a Mono pond.
Without a proper runway, grebes are unable to achieve takeoff.

Rob, and fellow Headwaters Nature Club member Ron Jasiuk, armed with dip nets, took to canoes to capture the grebe. Alas, he toyed with his would-be rescuers – submerge, swim to another area of the pond, repeat.  
Next, a different type of net was employed. Fiona Reid, who studies bats, arrived with mist nets. Rob, Fiona, and Lorysa Cornish, an Orangeville naturalist and wildlife rehab volunteer, hung the nets across one end of the pond. 

The grebe bounced off the netting on one of his attempted lift-offs and became briefly entangled on another try. Close calls, but as of this writing, the grebe remains stranded at his Mono landing site.

He has lots of food, but no doubt is longing for the prairies and the chance to breed. For now, though, his departure appears indefinitely delayed.   

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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