Tiny, bright-eyed and endangered

Recently, Sarah from the Toronto Wildlife Centre called me saying they had some red-necked grebes and a horned grebe that needed to be released. I headed to Bluffers Park, as it had access to Lake Ontario, its waterfront wasn’t frozen, and there were already many ducks and swans that seemed quite comfortable there.

After getting permission from the yacht club for the release, I met with Sarah. She handled three boxes, rope and safety gear, while I naturally grabbed my camera and got ready to capture the moment.

The true softie in me became apparent as the first box was opened. As soon as I saw the horned grebe all I could do was sigh and say, “Oh my goodness! So cute!”

Sarah from Toronto Wildlife Centre releases a grebe at Bluffers Park.  PHOTO: Ann Brokelman
Sarah from Toronto Wildlife Centre releases a grebe at Bluffers Park.
PHOTO: Ann Brokelman

The grebe was adorable, with bright red eyes, a tiny body and pretty grey feathers, sitting calmly in the palm of Sarah’s hand.  Sarah laid flat on the ice and gently held the grebe at the edge of the water. As she opened her hands the bird gave a shake, dipped into the water and swam around, giving us all a great show.

All of a sudden we heard a loud, nasal “AAAAAARRRHH,” followed by a pulsing trill. It was the grebe, probably yelling at us for forgetting to let his friends out! Sarah quickly released the two red-necked grebes, who took off into the water together and very quickly disappeared.

Another successful release.

So how did the grebes get themselves into trouble in the first place?

It’s actually fairly common for water birds to find themselves grounded (stuck on land), especially in the winter. Unfortunately for the birds, slick and icy pavement can resemble a body of water, tricking them into landing in the wrong area. Like loons, a grebe’s legs are placed so far back on their bodies that they are not able to walk on land, and can only take flight by skittering along the water. Crash-landing on hard surfaces often results in serious injuries to their sensitive feet and legs.

Even if they have a gentle landing, they are unable to walk, fly away, or even forage for food.

The grebes we released were found on the side of a road, near a highway, and, the luckiest of the three, in a snow bank beside a veterinarian’s office.

These three were given a thorough assessment by TWC’s veterinary team upon intake. They were checked for physical injuries and signs of illness.

After their good health was confirmed, they were given time at the centre in overflow pools (designed to provide a steady stream of fresh water), to ensure that they were swimming and diving well. A floating platform was put into the pools so the birds could hop up onto them without hurting their delicate bodies. They were fed a diet of live minnows, but only required a short stay before being declared fit for release. Thank you to Christina at TWC for the information.

To learn more about different types of grebes, visit allaboutbirds.org.

If you see wildlife that may need help, call TWC at 416-631-0662.

An adult horned grebe is seen in its winter plumage. PHOTO: Ann Brokelman
An adult horned grebe is seen in its winter plumage.
PHOTO: Ann Brokelman

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The Toronto Wildlife Centre can be followed on twitter at @TWC_Wildlife, on Facebook and via their website http://www.torontowildlifecentre.com. They have a wish list on their website so people can donate supplies they have listed there or make an online financial donation. Tax receipts will be issued.

Thank you for this article, it is nice to read about their recovery. I have been following the Toronto Wildlife Centre on twitter this winter and they have their hands full because of this harsh, unending weather! More animals than usual need rehabilitation because of the snow covered land and the frozen solid lakes.

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