Red-Necked Grebe – A Tennessee Rare Bird

Red-necked grebe in winter plumage

Thus far I’ve refrained from posting the nerdy bird stuff, but c’mon, you had to know it was coming! I love birding – the peace and solitude, the glory of nature, the chance to learn about and observe such interesting and beautiful creatures, and of course, that ever present possibility of seeing something unexpected. If your interest in birds ends with Tweety, feel free to skip on over to my crochet posts! If you want to learn about a bird you’ve probably never heard of, read on!

A week ago, I was at a park in Knoxville with my two little girls while the big kids were at choir. We do this every single Wednesday, and we get about 45 minutes at the park before we head back for the big kids. This park is located right along the Tennessee River, which makes it a pretty good little birding spot. This particular day was quite cold – wind chills had to have been hovering in the high 20s to low 30s and we were all very chilly. The girls entertained themselves on the swings while I stood nearby, scanning the water for ducks and things. There were the usual gulls and domestics hanging around, with other odds and ends here and there.

Red-necked grebe in winter plumage
Red-necked grebe in winter plumage

It was overcast and windy, so light wasn’t great for trying to see things farther out, but there was one duck that I kept circling back to, trying to get a better look. It was a ways out, but I have a Nikon P900 camera (awesome super zoom, which I LOVE LOVE LOVE more than words can say), and I kept trying to get decent shots of this one duck. I wasn’t even bothering to check the back of my camera because I didn’t think I had any photos clear enough to ID the bird. (I later realized I had decent enough photos even from when he was pretty far offshore. Best camera ever.)

He gradually made his way closer and closer to shore, and before I knew it, he was hanging out with some mallards and domestic geese very near the shore. I started getting much better looks at him and got the first inkling that this might be something to get excited about. It was certainly new for me, if nothing else.

I knew it was in the grebe family, but very different from the typical pied-billed grebes I see. This one was much larger, with a very long, heavy, yellowish bill, and a much longer neck. I started to get pretty insanely goofy at this point. Totally freaking out, I let the girls know we were onto something awesome. We headed to the car to check the bird book. As it turned out, this was a very special bird, indeed! I had to head back to get my kids from choir, but first, a quick photo and post to my fellow bird nerds to alert them about this rare find!

Red-necked grebes have absolutely no business in East Tennessee, but this guy is clearly a rule breaker. You can see a range map here, but basically they should be spending their winters out on either coast, and even during migration, their range doesn’t extend much below the Great Lakes. The last sighting of a red-necked grebe in my neck of the woods was nearly 5 years ago! That made this a true rarity, and a very exciting moment for me, a relatively new birder.

Lousy photo of the red-necked grebe beside a much smaller horned grebe. Same location, day after I first found him

I headed back to the scene after picking up my older kids, and there were 3 other birders there. For one of them, this was a life bird, meaning it’s the first one he’d ever seen. It was a lifer for me, too, and I was so glad someone else was as excited as I was! It was fun sharing in the jubilation with like-minded souls before heading home. Did I mention it was really cold??

Over the next few days, many other birders went out and found the grebe. I’m hoping to find him again tomorrow, when we go for our weekly visit during choir. If he’s not there tomorrow, it won’t be a big deal. I’m grateful to have happened upon him when I did, and felt the thrill of spotting a rare bird!

If you’re curious about birds that can be found in your area, or if you are interested in taking up birding as a hobby, I highly recommend that you check out eBird. It’s a fantastic way to share sightings, keep lists of birds you’ve seen, learn about what others are seeing in your area, find different birding hotspots, and so much more. The data that birders enter in eBird is used to track tons of useful information. You can also learn more about different birds by visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, which provides a wealth of information!


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