I, Grebe

As part of my naturalist training at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve I was asked to write a paper about one of our local marine birds.

Professor Evans, I want to apologize. I simply couldn’t find the time to do a report on grebes, with all the research and writing and everything, so I just went down to the harbor and looked around until I found a bird. In exchange for half an order of fried clams from Princeton Seafood, I got the damn thing to tell me about itself. I just transcribed what it had to say. I hope it’s okay.

I am a grebe.

That is to say, I am a member of the order Podicipediformes, from the Podicipedidae family. Our family includes 22 species in a half dozen genuses, but if you see one of us on the Coastside, chances are it’s a Western Grebe, like me.

My ancestors appeared in the fossil record 25 mya, during the late oligocene. We diverged, at that time, from our cousins, the flamingos. We know this from studies of our DNA and anatomy, which have shown that we have genes in common with flamingos and share eleven morphological traits. Birds cannot count to eleven, though, so I am unable to tell you what those traits are. But we grebes are not proud of the flamingo branch of the family. The Podicipedidae would never be burlesqued as pink lawn statuary. And then there are those ugly flamingo feet. More about feet later.

DESCRIPTION

I am a 2 kg waterfowl with ducklike build, black and white markings, a yellow bill and bright red eyes. Some of my cousins, like the pied-billed grebes, have evolved thick bills that can be used to crush shellfish, but mine is long and sharp and is used to spear small fish. My lifespan is 3-4 years. I want to make every minute count.

The name Podicipedidae means “feet on ass”. It sounds better in Latin. But that’s what I have: big, beautiful, flat feet. They are well adapted for swimming, which is what I use them for, since I don’t walk on land very much and they don’t help at all when I fly. They don’t help that much when I walk, either, because they’re placed so far back under my belly that I keep falling over like a drunk.

You will notice that my toes are in the shape of rounded lobes, another helpful swimming adaptation. Because of this, people used to think we Grebes were related to the Loons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Loons are boring birds, they’re all from Canada, and they can’t build a proper floating nest. But it turns out that they evolved lobed feet independently of the grebes. It’s an example of convergent evolution. Of course, the Podicipedidae did it first and the loons just copied. Happily, grebes and loons are now classified separately, in the orders Podicipediformes and Gaviiformes.

In addition to my feet, you may wish to admire my feathers, which are beautiful and functional. So beautiful that you idiots used to hunt us to make hats with them. (They are quite tasty, too, and I often eat them while I am preening. I like to give some to the new hatchlings, as well. You can never get enough fiber.) We Grebes have unusual bottom plumage that sticks straight out from the skin, bending backward to form a dense covering that traps air under the body. By flexing the feathers we can adjust our buoyancy. We can even swim with our bodies submerged and just the head and neck exposed. I’d like to see a loon do that.

MATING AND MIGRATION

In the summer, I put on my fancy mating feathers and go out looking for girl grebes (grebe cruising). This usually involves an elaborate mating ritual during which my honey and I caress each other with pieces of seaweed held sensuously in our bills (grebe foreplay), after which we rear up and charge across open water together and then dive in (grebe synchronized nuptials). A loon would be too tired to mate after all that. A clutch of 3-4 eggs is then laid (grebe consequences) and must be incubated for 24 days.

Anyway, you guys won’t get to see any of  that, because we grebes don’t mate on the coast. I just crash on the beach out here during the winter months, and then I migrate home for the summer to mate. Who needs the fog, anyway? My real home is a mound of twigs floating in the middle of a fresh water lake near Livermore.  (We have a view of the trailer park.) It took us 3 days to build and it floats out on the water, so the eggs are away from predators, not like the dumpy loon nests on the shore. After the kids hatch, they ride around on our backs for a few days ’til they learn to fish for themselves. Then I can come back to the coast and chill.

So we grebes are short-term visitors from over the hill. Some of my fishing buddies fly in from Oregon or the Sierras. Here’s a map of the places grebes hang out. Not all of us winter near the ocean, by the way. Many older grebes enjoy their retirement year in Mexico’s warmer climate (snowgrebes).

grebe range map
South America demonstrates continental podicipedidopenia

FEEDING AND PREDATORS

Like other tourists, grebes come to the coast for the water sports and seafood. I enjoy paddling around the harbor, diving, and spearing anchovies with my beak, though occasionally I’ll take a break from that and eat a crustacean or some insects.

I am not pressured very much by predators when I am out here on the water. The local raptors get plenty of field mice on the farms. If one becomes interested in me I may dive underwater to escape it, sometimes with a dramatic splash. A grebe is most vulnerable to predation while it is still an egg.

But all is not completely well in Grebeland. Our population is thought to be in decline. This may be due to pesticides, fishing lines, boaters disturbing our nesting colonies. On the coast, we are vulnerable to oil spills and netting.  It’s not easy being grebe. So please do what you can to protect our habitat. Leave the french fries, not the wrapper.

And thank you for your interest in grebes.

Glen Champ for Governor

A gubernatorial candidate has a refreshing approach to the job

US and California flagsI got my Voter Information Guide for the primaries in the mail the other day. After studying it, I decided to support Glenn Champ for Governor. Each of the candidates had submitted a short statement describing their political philosophy, and Mr. Champ’s read, in its entirety: “I’m the only candidate that will clean up the mess by holding elected officials accountable to the Constitution that will improve our economy. www. champforgovernor. com”. I immediately liked a man who would not let syntax stand in the way of his beliefs.

Curious, I visited the website. There was a biography of Mr. Champ, who is a contractor in the town of Tollhouse, California. He attended Sierra High School, but “would not stand for the unbiblical, communist, socialist, curriculum brain washing in college.” In addition to other syntactic surprises, the website also features a link to a preview for a forthcoming movie called “It takes a criminal to catch a criminal,” but at first I couldn’t figure out why.

Mr. Champ’s political philosophy is also described. He is refreshingly opposed to ” ungodly legislation drafted by demonic terrorist extremists own agenda”, a stance taken by no other candidate. As governor, he would throw out both Boxer and Feinstein (parasites!) and “appoint constitutional officers in their place”. He will also lower prices for everything. In order to achieve this, he points out, it is necessary first to fix the judges. I’m not completely clear on why this is the case, or even what it means, but he argues quite forcefully that it makes no sense to address other problems before confronting this one. That is why other reformers have failed.

I decided to offer Mr. Champ my support. I wrote to him and asked for campaign literature, a sign to put in my window, that sort of thing. In an effort to blend in, I capitalized the occasional word and threw in some random punctuation. I ended my note with “Please send me a sign”, thinking that a nice touch. A few days later, some bumper stickers arrived in the mail, along with envelopes for money, should I wish to contribute. There was also a flyer with more grammatical howlers than I can begin to list here.

Unfortunately, I may have to withdraw my allegiance. I am reconsidering my endorsement in light of an article in the LA Times, which pointed out some aspects of his resume that were omitted from the website. Such as the 12 years he spent in prison for voluntary vehicular manslaughter. Or his conviction for consorting with underage prostitutes. These details do shed some light on why he wants to fix the judges, and he did point out in the article that his criminal past might be an asset in dealing with career politicians. Nevertheless, I may switch my allegiance to the guy who wants to overhaul the prison system with “evidence-based healing.” Or the guy who wants to (this is his complete sentence) “Repeal train and water tunnel to solve water issue.” It’s great living in California. We have so many choices.