These two colorful waterbirds can present an easy hurdle for new birders. Eared and Horned Grebes are easy to identify during the breeding season... if you know what to look for.
This post will not cover nonbreeding plumage grebes, as that requires a much closer study. However, this post will get you on the right track for Eared and Horned Grebe identification in all plumages! Look for a future post on nonbreeding grebes and Clark's vs Western Grebes.
Visual Keys for the Eared and Horned Grebe
The shape of the "plumicorns" on the head of each grebe can be enough to identify these two vibrant birds. Additionally, eye location and bill shape can help to unlock this identification!
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Identification of Eared Grebe
The Eared Grebe's gold feathering, or plumicorns, have the distinctive shape of an ear. The plumicorns usually appear to stretch from the throat to the crest. The bill is petite, with the slightest upturn near the tip of the bill. The bill is usually completely dark. The eye appears much lower on the head, due to the "peaked" appearance of the Eared Grebe due to its crest. The plumicorns rarely carry their pattern beyond the front of the eye.
Identification of Horned Grebe
The Horned Grebe's gold feathering, or plumicorns, have the distinctive shape of a horn (or just an elongate shape). The plumicorns usually appear to stretch from the lores to the back of the head. The bill is heavier than that of the Eared Grebe, and the tip of the bill can be pale. It is not always visible if the bill is dirty or the bird is at a great distance. The eye appears much higher on the head, due to the flat appearance of its head.
If you feel like a challenge, learning the calls/songs of these two grebes may be beneficial to you! The Eared Grebe tends to have a longer, rising squeak, while the Horned Grebe has more trilling notes that sound like a dog toy bouncing down the stairs.
The ranges of these two species overlap significantly. So, while range may not be much help, habitat and behavior can be very helpful! Remember, range maps do not predict exactly where you will find a species, but instead, a range map shows what season(s) you could find a species in a given area. Habitat should be a major consideration when using range maps.
Eared Grebe Habitat and Behavior
Eared Grebe often congregate in large groups, often in flocks of 100+ birds. During winter and migration, they prefer smaller, shallow water bodies. They typically nest on marshy ponds, but this is not helpful, as the Horned Grebe nests in similar habitat.
Eared Grebe Range Map
Horned Grebe Habitat and Behavior
Horned Grebe are typically found alone or in very small, loosely flocked groups. During winter and migration, Horned Grebe prefer larger bodies of water, with a large number wintering on the open ocean. Horned Grebe also nest on marshy ponds.
Horned Grebe Range Map
Thanks for reading! We hope you will use this information for identifying grebes in your area!
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Photo 1, 2, 5: Eared Grebe by Yellowstone National Park under the Public Domain Mark 1.0. Modified from original for use.
Photo 1, 2, 5: Horned Grebe by Denali National Park and Preserve under the Public Domain Mark 1.0. Modified from original for use.