Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Loons, Grebes, Cormorants, and Pelicans of Maricopa County


Common Loon Gavia immer

True to it's name, the Common Loon is the most common loon and is seen much more than any other loon.  This loon is famous for it's calls and vocalizations on it's breeding grounds, which is one of nature's most amazing and breathtaking sounds.  It spends most of it's time when active diving for long periods of time for fish and other aquatic prey.  Diving length can sometimes reach 200 feet underwater.  Common Loons are common and widespread in the northern part of the Lower 48, Canada, and Alaska.  They winter along both coasts and are very common, and more common inland, where they are also widespread migrants and winter visitors.  With the exception of common numbers at the Lower Colorado River, Common Loons are uncommon but annual migrants and winter visitors in Arizona and Maricopa County.  Common Loons are mainly present in the county in uncommon numbers from late fall through winter.  Search large bodies of water, which includes most lakes, large ponds, and wide parts of rivers.   


Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps

The Pied-billed Grebe is the most common and widespread grebe in North America.  It is easy to observe as it makes its home on ponds and lakes.  This grebe is a great diver and sinker, and when intruders approach close, this grebe often "sinks" underwater slowly, and often only keep their head above water.  It swims underwater in pursuit of prey, where it's diet consists highly of aquatic insects and also small fish and crustaceans.  This grebe is very distinctive and looks much different than other grebes.  Other than the tiny Least Grebe which is limited only to southern Arizona and southern Texas, the Pied-billed Grebe is smaller than the other North American Grebes.  In Maricopa County, this bird is very common year round in all areas with ponds, lakes, wetlands, marshes, and rivers.


Eared Grebe Podiceps nigricollis

This grebe is a common spring and fall migrant in Maricopa County, as well as a winter resident who spends the entire winter.  From fall and winter and through much of spring, the Eared Grebe is common and can be observed easily at many lakes and ponds throughout the Maricopa County limits.  The photograph below shows an Eared Grebe in non-breeding plumage, which is more commonly seen in Maricopa County.  Breeding plumaged birds aren't seen until April when they are about ready to head north again.  A breeding plumaged bird is very striking and dark overall, and a bright yellow and plumy "patch" over it's ears, giving it it's name.  Eared Grebes are widespread throughout much of western North America, summering and breeding on lakes and marshes, which includes northeastern Arizona.  It winters along the Pacific Coast in abundant numbers and also winters in the the southern states from California as the western border and Mississippi being the regular eastern limit.  Eared Grebes are more scarce in the east.  This grebe finds food underwater, where it's diet consists of fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects.


Western Grebe Aechmophorus occidentalis

The well named Western Grebes inhabits much of western North America, where it is found on lakes and marshes.  Western Grebes are graceful birds, and have one of the most amazing courtship displays out of all the birds of North America.  During courtship, the grebes put on amazing displays by running on the water, a sight most birders and bird photographers hope to encounter.  Western Grebes have an amazing call also, a high, loud, and clear whistle "crick-criieek" that echoes across the lakes where it makes itself at home.  Like most grebes, Western Grebes feed underwater on a diet consisting of fish, crustaceans, and insects.  The similar Clark's Grebe used to be considered one species with the Wesern Grebe, but the two were split into two species for noticeable differences.  Western Grebes are very common in Maricopa County throughout most of the year on large lakes, where they breed.  In migration, they are often seen on large ponds and lakes both throughout the county in many different areas.


Clark's Grebe Aechmophorus clarkii

The Clark's Grebe is similiar in most respects to the Western Grebe, who were both at one time considered a single species.  The Clark's Grebe has similar voice, habits, food sources, and courtship displays as does the Western Grebe.  Some visual differences are very clear that two species are being represented.  The Clark's Grebe has a bright yellow-orange bill, while the Western had a yellow-green bill.  The Clark's Grebe has no dark surrounding it's eye and less of a "capped" look, while the Western Grebe completely has black surrounding it's eye.  Clark's Grebes also have very extensive white flight feathers that are much more limited on a Western Grebe.  On this page, look at the pictures of these two grebes to see the obvious differences.  The two species also differ in numbers, as the Clark's Grebe is far less common than the Western Grebe and has a smaller range.  In Maricopa County, Clark's Grebes are usually found in smaller but very findable numbers in spring, fall, and all of winter, often mixed in with Western Grebe flocks.  They tend to be found more on big lakes during these times, and are sometimes found in ponds, but not found on ponds as much as Western Grebes. 


Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus

The Neotropic Cormorant is small for a cormorant and is very long-tailed.  This species is highly a Mexican species, but frequents south Texas, New Mexico, and has been dramatically increasing in range in Arizona to the central part of the state.  Maricopa County is one of the better places in North America to see Neotropic Cormorants, who have become abundant in several areas in the county.  In the picture below, an adult (left) and an immature (right) Neotropic Cormorant are shown side by side.  The pointed white border outling the skin of the Neotropic Cormant's bill is very distinctive and is very easy to separate from the larger and more common Double-crested Cormorant.  The immature Neotropic Cormorant is also easy to tell apart from the immature Double-crested Cormorant:  the immature Neotropic has a darker brown breast while the immature Double-crested has a very pale breast.  In Maricopa County, Neotropic Cormorants can be found in the following places:  Area 2 (Granite Reef Recreation Site), Area 4 (Gilbert Water Ranch, Higley Road Ponds, and Veteran's Oasis Park), Area 5 (Rio Salado Restoration Area, Kawinis Park), and Area 7 (Glendale Recharge Ponds, Tres Rios Wetlands, Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area).  Out of the places listed, Tres Rios Wetlands (Area 7) and Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4) are the best locations to view this species.  Tres Rios Wetlands has amazing numbers of both Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants that use the area practically as a "cormorant flyway".  Here they fly side-by-side and it is a great place to look at size differences and overall shape of bird in flight.


Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax aurtiis

The Double-crested Cormorant is the most common and widespread cormorant in North America, being the only represtative of it's family with a wide range inland.  This bird is still found in large numbers on both coasts, which is more typical habitat of cormorants.  Cormorants actively dive in the water in pursuit of their main diet in fish, and they dry their wings on land by holding their wings straight out, almost like they are showing off their wingspan while perched.  Double-crested Cormorants gather in large groups and nest in colonies.  These cormorants are very common in Maricopa County all year and can be found throughout the county on lakes, rivers, ponds, and even ponds and small lakes in residential areas in midst of housing developments.  They can get very used to people and learn to live close to human homes. 


American White Pelican Pelecanus erythorhynchos

The American White Pelican is one of North America's largest birds, breeding on inland lakes of the west.  This huge giant has a wingspan that reaches over nine feet, which is a spectacular sight when seen in flight.  American White Pelicans often circle and soar over areas in flocks before they come to a landing.  This pelican feeds on fish in the water as it is feeding, where it's pouch can hold a lot of food source and up to three gallons of water.  In Maricopa County, American White Pelicans may be present at all times of year, especially in migration periods and winter.  Checking large lakes and ponds throughout the county are the best chances of seeing this huge bird.  The best place in Maricopa County to see American White Pelicans is at the Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands (Area 7), where they are present in high numbers year round. 


Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

The Brown Pelican is the world's smallest pelican, and is noticeably smaller than the American White Pelican.  Brown Pelicans are strictly coastal on both North American coasts, and are generally very scarce inland in North America.  The Brown Pelican is a great hunter, and has different feeding habits than the White Pelican.  Brown Pelicans plunge-dive into the waters for fish going down bill first and scooping up fish with their pouch, where White Pelicans feed by swimming in the water.  Brown Pelicans are uncommon to rare in Arizona but are annual in small numbers.  In Maricopa County, Tempe Town Lake (Area 5) is a great location to see Brown Pelicans throughout the year.  Sometimes multiple birds can be seen at Tempe Town Lake, where as many as five birds have been counted at one time on an occasion.  Besides Tempe Town Lake, Brown Pelicans are also found usually on an annual basis at several other large reservoirs or ponds throughout the county.


Also keep an eye out for....


Horned Grebe Podiceps auritus

The Horned Grebe is very striking in breeding plumage, having a horned look because of tufts of feathers above and behind the eyes, which are only present on this grebe during the breeding season.  The nonbreeding version of the Horned Grebe is shown below, which is what's most likely to always be seen in Arizona.  This grebe breeds on freshwater marshes and lakes during it's breeding season in the far north.  It migrates through much of the interior east, and winters on both coasts.  It is a rare migrant and winter visitor in much of the interior west, but is annual with multiple sightings every year.  That is the case with this species in Arizona.  In Maricopa County, keep an eye out for this species in late fall and throughout all of winter.  Birds are found annually on reservoirs and lakes, as well as large ponds.  Birds have become more regular in Maricopa County in recent years, with multiple sightings throughout the county in different areas.


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