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An apparent brown waterbird in flight -- where do we start? Well, with ducks, wing pattern is often a good place to start, as that can usually quickly separate diving ducks from dabbling ducks. However, interpreting whether we're looking at the underside or topside of the wings seems a bit problematic. However, we are looking virtually straight up the bird's left wing with the wingtip pointing right at us and giving us a marginal view of the underside. The right wing is pointing away from us and we've got a pretty good view of the top side. Though it's difficult to be sure of the shape of that wingtip, it looks suspiciously rounded and there seems to be no pattern on the wing, other than the vague white trailing edge on the secondaries -- not your typical duck wing pattern and shape. Focusing on the bird's bill, which is short, thick, and yellow, we can readily determine that our bird is not a duck.
The wing shape also rules out any brown tubenose, as that group is pretty well defined by long, narrow, and pointed wings. The key in the wholesale elimination of the Pelecaniformes (cormorants, pelicans, tropicbirds, boobies, etc) lies in the feet. That order is characterized by being totipalmate, that is all four toes are connected with webbing, unlike, I believe, all other ABA-area orders of birds. Since we can easily see our quiz bird's hind toe on the left foot, it's certainly not totipalmate. While ogling the feet, we might notice that the legs seem placed awfully far back on the body, suggesting a loon or grebe. Once there, things get considerably easier, as there are no loons that are entirely brown-plumaged, and only two ABA-area grebes sport such: Pied-billed and Least, though the latter tends more toward gray than the warmish brown of the quiz bird. As we're already leaning toward Pied-billed on plumage coloration, confirm that lean by noting that the bill is not black or bicolored black and gray and it's certainly not thin.
Most birders may pass their entire careers seeing only one or two Pied-billed Grebes in flight making it less likely that they will recognize the beast when doing such -- it's quite a strange-looking flight; so much so, that one might wonder how they can possibly migrate like that! Though I've been fairly lucky in this regard (having actually photographed the phenomenon twice!), I still tend to wonder if they've developed transporter technology. I took the picture of this Pied-billed Grebe at Lily Lake, Cape May Point, Cape May Co., NJ, 21 November 2008.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the August Bird Photo Quiz—Pied-billed Grebe:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.