The photos above and below are of Grebes that were once thought of as the same species. Up until the 1980s, the Clark’s Grebe was considered a “white morph” or a paler version of the Western Grebe. After some closer study of the two species, they were found to be definitely two different species.
The major difference between these birds is around the eye. Can you see the eye or is it hidden by the black or dark gray? The Clark’s Grebe has a red eye that is surrounded by white, the black or gray area stops above the eye, while the Western Grebe has red eyes surrounded by black or gray that stops under the eye!
If you are out west and you come across one of these grebes and you are just not quite sure which one it is, since in winter the gray on the western grebes can become much lighter and make identification difficult, take a close look at their bills. The Clark’s Grebe has a bright yellow dagger-like bill while the Western Grebe’s bill is darker, somewhat olive-green or grayish. So look closely and you should be able to identify just which species you are looking at.
These birds can be found in North America from British Columbia all the way south into Mexico. They can be found on lakes or in wetlands, I’ve often seen them in the ocean just offshore the California coast.
They prefer to eat fish, but can be opportunist when it comes to the food they eat, and have been know to eat insects, worms, crustaceans and salamanders. Usually they will dive down into the water to forage for small fish.
So don’t panic if you see one of these grebes out west, just take some photos, take some field notes. If you can’t identify the species right there, then go home and do some “homework,” study your photos closely and you should be able to identify.
Have fun and happy birding!