Grebes’ funny feet, traveling albatross, more bird trivia

  • By Sharon Wootton
  • Friday, December 27, 2013 4:04pm
  • Life

Picture swans, geese, grebes, coots, ducks and mergansers paddling across a body of water this winter.

It’s easy to assume what’s happening under the water: webbed feet creating motion.

The swans, geese, ducks and mergansers do have webbed feet, but grebes and coots do not. They have lobed toes. Unlike most aquatic birds that have a web connecting their toes, a grebe’s three toes each have flaps of skin attached, and the claws are flattened.

Grebes are still excellent divers because on the backward stoke, the toes spread apart and the lobes spread out, pushing against the water on the up stroke, the bird brings the toes together, folding the lobes and creating less resistance.

Grebes move through sea grass easier because the lobed toes allow provide less resistance than webbed feet.

Singing the blues: Pilchuck Audubon Society’s Jan. 10 program is on the reintroduction of the western bluebird to the Pacific Northwest.

Gary Slater, executive director of Ecostudies Institute, will tell the story of the rise and fall of the bluebird species in Western Washington and southwest British Columbia.

Bluebirds were common here until the early 1900s. Habitat loss and fragmentation, plus competition for nest cavities from exotic species, decimated the population.

Since 2007, Ecostudies and its partners are working to restore populations in the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island. Slater will talk about the first successful reintroduction of a migratory passerine species.

The order Passeriformes includes more than half of the world’s avian species.

The program is open to the public. It starts at 7 p.m. Jan. 10 at Everett Firefighter’s Hall, 2411 Hewitt Ave., Everett.

Bird bands: Occasionally snow geese and swan watchers in the Skagit Valley will spot a band on a bird’s leg. These bands are etched with a unique code. If you spot one and can read the code, call 800-327-BAND or go to

The North American Bird Banding Program, administered by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service, has accumulated millions of records since 1920.

The USGS’s Bird Banding Laboratory issues permits to band birds, provides the metal bands, and manages more than 72 million banding and 4.5 million band encounter records.

The records show that some birds go through many bird bands in their lifetime. Wisdom, a Laysan albatross, for example, is on her fifth band.

If there were avian frequent flier miles for birds, Wisdom would have a category all her own. She has traveled up to 3 million miles over the Pacific Ocean in her lifetime, stopping at the Midway Atoll only to hatch a chick, one of about 30 in her lifetime, according to the USGS.

Wisdom is the oldest known wild bird in the Northern Hemisphere, first banded in 1956, and is estimated to be 62 years old.

Astounding results about the bar-tailed godwit, a species of shorebird, have come from the banding program. Researchers have placed satellite transmitters in the godwits, tracking them since the early 1980s.

The research demonstrates that godwits are capable of migrating from Alaska to New Zealand in a single flight — a flight that covers more than 7,000 miles and takes about nine days.

The godwits complete this amazing feat each autumn, migrating between breeding and nonbreeding grounds, and they do not eat or sleep during the migration.

A female who was banded in the winter near Tallahassee, Fla., was captured the following summer in southeast Alaska. Her flight covered more than 3,000 miles in a single spring migration, in which she stopped a number of times along the way.

Decades of research have helped to restore endangered species, set hunting regulations, and learn the effects of environmental contaminates.

For more information, go to

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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