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Western Grebes find life at Lake Anna just ducky

January 8, 2013 12:10 am


Bird watchers David Youker (left) and John Adair, both from Yorktown, look at two Western Grebes from the beach at Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania County. Western Grebes are rarely seen this far east. lo010813grebe3.jpg

A grebe is released last month in Utah. Grebes have been spotted at Lake Anna in Spotsylvania. lo010813grebe2.jpg

This smartphone image shows the normal track for a Western Grebe. A pair was recently spotted at Lake Anna.


Dave Youker, a bird-watcher from Yorktown, was looking over a state ornithology website in mid-December when one item caught his eye.

A Western grebe had been spotted from the shore at Lake Anna State Park.

Youker, president of the Hampton Roads Bird Club, was intrigued, he said in a telephone interview. Western grebes--diving, fish-eating birds resembling ducks--are native to the West Coast.

Two weeks later, when more sightings were posted on the Virginia Birding Listserves website, he decided to drive the 2 hours from his home to the lake for a look. Two other birders, John Adair and Adair's wife, Marilyn, went along for the ride.

"We drove up to see if we could actually see them. It was kind of a long shot," Youker said.

They were not disappointed.

Shortly after setting up their scopes at the park, the trio spotted one grebe, then another.

The website was "only reporting one, and we happened to see two that day," he said. Youker believes the pair somehow got disoriented, winding up a few thousand miles from home.

"It happens where birds, instead of migrating west, migrate East," he said. "Sometimes, when this happens early in a bird's life, they continue to migrate along the same path. If this is the case, these birds may be visiting us in subsequent years."

Noted for striking black and white feathers, blood-red eyes, and elaborate courtship displays, Western grebes are typically found west of the Mississippi River. They winter from southern British Columbia to Central Mexico, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"People from all over Virginia and beyond have come to see the birds, and more are expected as these two birds continue to remain at Lake Anna," Youker said.

"It was pretty exciting. We never expected to see that--a bird from so far west," said Marilyn Adair.

Angie Morris, the office assistant at the state park, said three birders who stopped by in recent weeks reported seeing the grebes.

"I have noticed a few more people than usual, looking for them," she said.

Western grebes have been reported on Lake Anna before, with reported sightings dating back to at least 2005.

In February 2011, one was rescued on the 13,000-acre lake after it had swallowed a baited hook cast by a nearby fisherman. Two birders saw the incident, met the boat as it docked, and took the grebe to the Animal Medical Center of Louisa for treatment. It went from there to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro for rehabilitation.

The bird was returned to the wild a few days later, near where it was found on the lake.

Youker, who has been bird watching seriously for eight years, said enthusiasts are always on the lookout to log birds they haven't seen.

"Every now and then [opportunities] pop up," he said, and the birding community can share in the find when rare bird alerts show up on the website hosted by the Virginia Society of Ornithology.

Other sightings recently reported on the eBird rare bird alert for Lake Anna, Youker said, are the Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull and Bonaparte's Gull. These are flagged because they are generally shore species.

Back in Yorktown, Youker, a certified master naturalist, routinely sees a lot of sea birds and songbirds.

"Just this morning, I happened to go to a nearby reservoir and saw a yellow-breasted chat," he said. It's a large songbird in the warbler family.

"I just like the outdoors," Youker said. "My family is all into birding."

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

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