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All 6 Grebes in South Dakota

grebes in south dakota
Western Grebe in South Dakota: Photo by Hannah Leabhart


South Dakota is home to six unique grebe species, each offering bird enthusiasts a chance to observe their fascinating behaviors and distinctive appearances. These waterbirds vary in size and color, but they all share certain traits like diving for prey and building floating nests. Whether it’s the elaborate courtship dances of Western and Clark’s Grebes or the territorial behavior of Pied-billed and Horned Grebes, these species provide a captivating glimpse into the diversity of the state’s aquatic birdlife. Additionally, the state hosts the Red-necked and Black-necked (Eared) Grebes, adding to the rich tapestry of birdlife. Explore the habitats and habits of these intriguing birds to appreciate their role in South Dakota’s ecosystems.

Grebes in South Dakota

Jump to a species!

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

  • Features: The Pied-billed Grebe is a small, robust water bird with a stocky build and slim neck. It features a sizable, blocky head and a short, thick bill. Its body is brown, with a darker upper part and a lighter, tawny-brown underside. In the spring and summer, the bird’s crown and nape darken, while its throat turns black. During breeding, the bill is pale with a distinctive black band, while at other times it is a yellow-brown color. Juveniles have faces marked by stripes.
  • Behavior: The Pied-billed Grebe can control its buoyancy, allowing it to float with only the top part of its head above the water. It hunts small fish and invertebrates by diving or gradually submerging itself. These birds construct floating nests using cattails, grasses, and other plant materials.
  • Habitat: Search for Pied-billed Grebes in small, calm ponds and marshes with dense aquatic vegetation. During winter, you may find them on larger bodies of water, sometimes gathering in sizable flocks.
  • Range: These grebes are quite common year-round in South Dakota, but generally more regular east of the Missouri River.

Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus)

  • Features: A small, sturdy water bird with a solid build, a somewhat short neck, a blocky head that can appear peaked, and a straight, slender bill that differs from a duck’s bill. Breeding adults have a dark gray-black back with deep, rusty-cinnamon sides and neck. Their head is also gray-black with long yellow feathers behind the eye. Non-breeding birds are uniformly gray on top with white undersides. The head is capped with black, transitioning sharply to white on the cheek.
  • Behavior: Horned Grebes are predominantly found on water, where they take short dives to chase fish and invertebrates. During breeding, they primarily consume insects and larvae, some captured mid-air and others from or on the water’s surface. Birds that are wintering or migrating typically gather in small groups.
  • Habitat: It breeds in freshwater ponds with emergent vegetation. During migration and winter, it can be found in lakes, ponds, rivers, bays, and ocean environments.
  • Range: Horned Grebes are infrequent visitors to South Dakota. You are most likely to observe them in migration months (April to May and October to November) scattered across the states, but like the Pied-billed Grebes, mostly east of the Missouri River.

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

  • Features: This robust waterbird is about the size of many ducks but features a longer neck and a substantial, pointed bill. Non-breeding birds are primarily dark gray on top with lighter underparts, pale cheeks, and sides of the neck. Breeding adults showcase a rusty red breast and front neck, paired with a sleek black cap and a sharply contrasting white cheek. Juveniles resemble non-breeding adults, though the head pattern is less pronounced.
  • Behavior: Outside of the breeding season, these birds are typically quiet and are found alone or in small, loose groups. During nesting, pairs engage in intricate, loud courtship displays and fiercely protect their territories, even from other waterfowl species.
  • Habitat: During migration and the nonbreeding season, these birds inhabit a variety of aquatic environments, including rivers, lakes, bays, and open ocean. Nesting birds, however, tend to prefer larger lakes.
  • Range: Red-necked Grebes are very uncommon in South Dakota, with most records in the northeast around Waubay National Wildlife Refuges in November.

Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

  • Features: A petite waterbird with a disproportionately small head, slender neck, and narrow bill. Its back is smooth and oval-shaped, ending in a fluffy, tailless rear. Breeding birds feature a crested or peaked head and predominantly black plumage with chestnut-colored flanks and golden feathers fanning out behind the bright red eye. Nonbreeding birds are mainly grayish black, with smudged gray cheeks and a dark crown that extends down past the red eye. The neck is pale in color.
  • Behavior: This sociable bird nests in colonies and forms flocks ranging from hundreds to thousands on lakes and ponds during migration and winter. It swims smoothly across the water and leaps up briefly before diving beneath the surface to catch aquatic invertebrates.
  • Habitat: Breeds in shallow lakes and ponds. Prefers saltwater during migration and winter. Found in large groups in extremely salty waters rich in brine shrimp and flies.
  • Range: Common to uncommon in most of South Dakota all year, other than winter months.

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis)

  • Features: This is a sizable, slender waterbird with an exceptionally long neck, a substantial head that can appear peaked, and a long, slender, pointed bill. Western Grebes exhibit a stark black-and-white color pattern, with a distinct line between the black and white extending down the neck. The head and much of the face are black, while the area below the eye is white. The bill has a yellowish or greenish-yellow hue, and the eye is red when observed closely.
  • Behavior: Western Grebes are usually found in the water, where they dive for prey or rest on the surface. During dives, they may remain underwater for extended periods. Courting pairs perform a mesmerizing display, racing side by side across the water with gracefully curved necks and bills pointed skyward.
  • Habitat: Breeding birds inhabit freshwater lakes, while nonbreeding birds can be found in both freshwater and saltwater habitats, although they stay close to shore in ocean settings.
  • Range: Possibly South Dakota’s most common grebe species, these birds are found regularly across the state between April and December mostly.

Clark’s Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii)

  • Features: A sizable waterbird with an exceptionally long, slender neck, a fine, straight bill, and a comparatively small body. It features a clean mix of dark upper parts and white underparts. The face is white up to and around the eye, where it meets the black cap. The bill is a striking orange or orange-yellow, and the eye appears red at close range.
  • Behavior: Clark’s Grebes spend most of their day diving for food or resting on the water. During courtship, pairs engage in ritualized displays that include synchronized racing across the water while nearly upright. These birds seldom fly and typically migrate at night.
  • Habitat: Clark’s Grebes are almost exclusively found in aquatic environments. Breeding birds inhabit freshwater lakes, while non-breeding birds can be seen in both freshwater habitats and along saltwater coasts.
  • Range: Clark’s Grebes are very uncommon in South Dakota, mostly recorded in the northeast of the state, with scattered records elsewhere.

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The six grebe species found in South Dakota offer a rich and varied snapshot of the state’s aquatic birdlife. Whether you’re observing their intricate courtship rituals, unique nesting habits, or skilled diving abilities, these birds provide a captivating experience for both novice and seasoned birdwatchers. Their presence across various freshwater and saltwater habitats highlights the importance of preserving these ecosystems to maintain the health and diversity of South Dakota’s wildlife. By appreciating and protecting these remarkable birds, we contribute to the conservation of the natural beauty and ecological balance of the region.