Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

Eared Grebe rescue mission a success

This post was written by Morgan, 2011 Policy Coordinator.

Early in the afternoon of 11-11-11, our friends Nancy and Ramona discovered the first Eared Grebe in town. Each fall Mono Lake harbors between 500,000 and two million Eared Grebes, which come to fatten up on brine shrimp and alkali flies before heading south to the Salton Sea and the Gulf of California for the winter. So seeing an Eared Grebe at Mono Lake is not news, but this grebe was not out on the lake, it was sitting calmly on the slick, wet pavement at Murphey’s Motel and wasn’t able to fly.

While Eared Grebes are masterful swimmers and divers, they can only take flight by building momentum across water and are unable to walk or fly once on dry land. Grebes only fly at night, and when rain pools on pavement—like it did Friday morning—the grebes become confused and will land on wet parking lots and roads, mistaking them for bodies of water. In this way grebes are often fatally injured on impact, or from drivers who assume the birds will fly away when they get close.

A call to Eastern Sierra Wildlife Care confirmed that although stunned, the grebe found at Murphey’s might be unharmed, and only in need of a helping hand back to Mono Lake. But if we released the grebe directly into the lake to try to determine if it was injured, it would be unlikely that we could catch it again. The advice was to try a test run and release the quiet but alert bird into a small, controlled body of water. Like a bathtub, we asked? Sure, that should work just fine.

Eared Grebe in the bathtub.
A bird in my bathtub was a new experience for both me and the grebe. Note the bright red eye and the position of the lobed feet, far back on the grebe’s body to be most effective for swimming, but useless for walking on land.

We decided to release the grebe at Old Marina, the closest access point to Mono Lake from Lee Vining, and one of the sites that would be closed to the public if Mono Lake’s state park were to close. But as we pulled into the parking lot, there sitting in the parking lot was another Eared Grebe!

Another Eared Grebe in the Old Marina parking lot.
Office Manager Rose Catron about to rescue another stranded grebe, this time from the Old Marina parking lot.

As Office Manager Rose Catron placed the second grebe in the box next to the first for the walk down to the shore, a familiar car pulled up next to us. Information Center & Bookstore Assistant Russ Reese had arrived with a cardboard box of his own and two more grebes picked up from the large Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center parking lot! As the three of us tromped down the short path to the lake, we wondered how the grebes would react to the cold lake water and freedom.

Eared Grebe release.
I pause for a quick photo before releasing the first Eared Grebe.
Freedom, at last!

The grebes embraced the cold, salty water with a chorus of peeps and much fluffing of feathers. They lingered offshore for a few moments before turning and heading out to deeper waters, and lunch.

Rose and Russ with empty boxes and the four newly freed grebes behind them on the right.

We headed back up the hill to Lee Vining with empty boxes and lighter hearts, although most  likely not all of the Eared Grebes who landed on asphalt that day were as lucky as the four we found. You can learn about the Eared Grebes at Mono Lake, and other bird sighting here.

Four lucky survivors rejoin the flock. Photos by Morgan Lindsay and Rose Catron.


  1. Ahhh….what a great story. I hope that everyone who finds any wayward survivors will also return them to the lake in hopes that they have not been badly injured by the rough landing.

  2. :-) Nice story, maybe one of those once in a lifetime events, great memories.

  3. So happy for the little grebes!! And so happy to live in a town where people take the time to help out – be it wildlife or us humans! Thank you for the wonderful example of kindness and compassion!

  4. Morgan et al,
    Thanks for this Thanksgiving story! It was my start to the holiday, and a perfect one.

  5. Ah, such a good story. I miss you guys. Nice to see the little grebes made it to the lake with your help!

  6. Brilliant! Thanks for publishing the story. This is one of the reasons I am a member, to hear about everyday events of importance.

  7. MLC to the rescue! Nice to see those grebes were in capable hands….and then out of them again, of course :-) Good work team!!

  8. Rosanne Catron, Office Manager
    Rosanne Catron, Office Manager

    Glad everyone enjoyed the story! The four little grebes were singing as they swam out into Mono Lake – what a fun experience.

  9. William Moramarco
    William Moramarco

    Today is Christmas Day. A late start for me on this newsletter. Still inspiring!