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How a trip to Portland turned me into a dancing grebe stalker

190615-ca Dancing Grebes

I’d never paid much attention to grebes one of our prettiest but elusive waterfowl until I got the chance to see grebes dancing. Then I was all in. I boned up on grebe behavior and watched a David Attenborough video of two grebes – chicken-sized waterfowl - running across a lake on their toes in a perfectly synchronized dance. It looked stunning. 

At the YYC airport I waited to board WestJet’s inaugural flight from Calgary to Portland April 29. With free munchies and selfies with the flight crew, the departure lounge had a party vibe. “Why are you going to Portland?” asked a fellow traveler. “I’m going to see dancing grebes,” I replied. Her brows scrunched together in confusion. “Dancing grapes?” she uttered.

“No, dancing grebes. They are a type of waterfowl and one of the best places to see their courtship is in Southern Oregon. Portland’s a great place to launch explorations of the state,” I explained.

Touching down in Portland

I planned my assault from Tore, the rooftop bar of The Hoxton, a downtown hotel with lots of cozy gathering places. Friends of the hotel select ten of their favorite books for each room. Mine had books on ghosts and dream interpretation but I didn’t need them to tell me I’d be dreaming of birds.

To get the blood moving after sitting in the plane I took a short bike tour of the river valley to learn more about the city. I discovered Portland was a great destination for outdoor lovers. There’s 500 kilometers of walking, hiking and hiking trails and a multitude of breweries, urban wineries (where grapes are purchased not grown by winemakers) and doughnut makers to give you a reason to move more.

I could’ve taking public transit from the airport and then road an Amtrak plane train all the way to Klamath Falls if I wanted but I had a stop planned at Smith rock State Park so I picked up my rental car and drove south five hours to Klamath Falls, a few kilometers north of the California Oregon border.

Why birds and bird lovers like Klamath Falls Oregon

Klamath Falls is unknown to many human travelers, but birds know it. The Pacific Flyway - a migratory route for North American birds - passes overhead and narrows near the Cascade Mountains. This pinch point and six national wildlife refuges nearby with wetland habitat mean 80% of North American waterfowl pass through the Klamath Falls area.

That means a lot of birds to see but I arrived with only one species in mind and the western grebe with a long graceful neck, cherry-red eyes, and a long narrow beak, is easy to identify.

I met up with Diana Samuels, coordinator of the Winter Wings bird watching festival, to improve my chances of seeing their courtship rituals or dancing. “It’s called rushing,” she corrected me.

“Am I too early to see it?” I asked. In the hours since I’d arrived I turned into a grebe stalker asking everyone I met where I could see the grebes and if they’d seen them dancing.

“It’s too early.” “It’s been too cold.” “Spring is late this year.” I was told. My spirit sank as I considered I may have come all this way to see only paddling, not dancing, grebes.

“Nonsense,” Samuels exclaimed when I told her of my worries, “I saw a pair rushing yesterday. We’re going to find you some birds.”

Finding grebes

They take their grebe watching in Klamath Falls seriously. Samuels produced a couple of lawn chairs from her car and we settled in at Putnam Point on Upper Klamath Lake. I hadn’t yet sat down when a male grebe floating near shore passed its mate some wet reeds. “That’s the reed dance! “Samuels exclaimed. “It’s the first part of the courtship but I’ve never seen that before.”

If there is a romantic in the bird world it’s the western grebe. Each year they engage in elaborate courtship rituals, the male presenting his beloved with reeds or a fish before they perform a series of head movements in unison. I watched one pair work themselves into an agitated state until they swam rapidly towards each other, bills clicking out a sound like angry frogs, and then Shazam!

The two birds had lifted their bodies vertically and were propelling themselves rapidly across the surface with their web feet, the sun glinting off their white breasts, wings arched backwards as they danced on the lake for a few seconds, their next arched in a graceful S-curve.

An Oregon wildlife spectacle

I felt like David Attenborough when I realized I’d seen a duck-style Paso Doble ballroom dance, and been lucky to capture it on video. Like a sugar addict with a box of donuts I wanted more. We sat for a couple of hours listening to the frog-like chatter of the grebes, leaping up when a pair rushed across the water, and soaking in the quiet rhythms of spring unfolding.

“In other places if you want to see marsh birds you have to go to a marsh. If you want to see forest birds you go to a forest, in Klamath Falls it feels like the birds are all around,” Samuels explained on the magic of Klamath Falls. As I headed back to Portland I felt like I had left the bird lovers Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were a pair of grebes.

Travel Oregon, Discover Klamath and WestJet sponsored Carol’s trip but the opinions expressed are her own.

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