Mysterious grebe downing leaves hundreds of dead birds floating in Quail Creek

Composite photo, with inset image a dead grebe found floating in Quail Creek reservoir on Dec. 9, 2021. Background photo shows a lone boater on Quail Creek, Washington County, Utah, Feb. 1, 2021 | Photos courtesy of Kathy Smith/Mike Saemisch, St. George News

HURRICANEAs an almost daily visitor to Quail Creek State Park, Kathy Smith has traversed the length and breadth of the entire lake many times over. She’s cleaned up trash on the shoreline, and even helped remove the occasional animal carcass that washed ashore.

Several species were represented among the dead birds found in the lake, including Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe and Eared Grebe, Washington County, Utah, Dec. 9, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Kathy Smith, St. George News

But despite her experience, she was disturbed by the sight that greeted her during a Wednesday morning kayak trip around the lake.

“I paddled all the way from the north end of the lake to the south end, and when I stopped to turn around and come back they started showing up,” Smith said. “I started running into these grebes with black and white chests. One after another — more than 50 of them, and they were all floating in the water dead.”

Bewildered, Smith decided to notify the authorities and tried to reason out what happened to these birds that are well adapted to life on the water. 

“I pulled one out, and it had a hole through its chest almost like it was shot,” she said.

This grebe was fished from the water by a kayaker and handed over to wildlife officials on Wednesday morning, Washington County, Utah, Dec. 8, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Kathy Smith, St. George News

Grebes are a family of water birds similar to ducks, and it is illegal to hunt them in the state of Utah. After sending a biologist to assist state park rangers in investigating the grisly event, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources dispatched a conservation officer to determine whether the deaths were the result of poaching.

Sgt. Brandon White inspected the remains of several waterlogged grebes and said he saw specimens from multiple species of the aquatic bird family, including western grebe, Clark’s grebe and eared grebe.

“Of the birds I looked at, there was no evidence of them being shot,” White said. “It’s peculiar, and the closest thing I can come up with is that they hit the water in the shallower portions of the lake, or they just hit the water really hard. I’m not sure what happened there.”

More birds kept turning up dead as the search continued. Even after Wednesday’s clean-up efforts, many were still floating in the lake Thursday morning, and rangers reported hundreds dead throughout the park.

This isn’t the first time grebes have died en masse in Southern Utah. Ten years ago, a flock of over 7,000 dove into the pavement of a rain-slicked Walmart parking lot in Cedar City.

Keith Day, native species biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the birds were in the middle of migrating from the Great Salt Lake to warmer climes in Southern California.

A Western Grebe swimming with a grebe chick on its back, location unknown, July 10, 2016 | Photo courtesy of Roger Lewis/USFWS via Flickr, St. George News

“They usually leave Salt Lake in good weather, but that doesn’t always mean its good weather down here,” Day said. “They did run into a storm that night (Tuesday), and those conditions forced them to come down. What often happens is they look to land on water, but anything that’s wet looks like water in the dark.”

Grebes are wholly reliant on water for their survival. Not only do they hunt their prey and perform elaborate mating rituals in an aquatic environment, but they also cannot take flight unless they start from a floating position.

The 2011 incident was an example of a downing where reflected street lights caused the parking lot’s blacktop surface to shine and give the appearance of a safe landing to migrating grebes. Day said he tries to contact local businesses and ask them to reduce overnight lighting when weather conditions might produce a similar event.

However, he also acknowledged the peculiarity of this situation, in which hundreds of birds seemed to have died in their proper habitat.

In a return trip on Thursday, Smith encountered dead grebe floating the lake that eluded cleanup efforts, Washington County, Utah, Dec. 9, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Kathy Smith, St. George News

“When they hit ground, they can hit hard enough to kill or severely injure themselves, but that shouldn’t be an issue in water,” Day said. “I’m not sure why there are so many dead on the water — you’d think that landing on the water would be safer.”

It certainly wasn’t cold enough to freeze the lake’s surface. Even with rain and wind bringing temperatures down, the reported low at Quail Creek State Park was around 44 degrees. 

Several birds had open wounds, while others had no external signs of injury, Smith said. Seeing the wounds on the bird she turned in and having heard gunshots in the vicinity of the lake before she began kayaking, she was initially suspicious of foul play. 

However, White said he was confident these birds were not killed through use of a firearm. Hunting waterfowl is allowed at Quail Creek with a legal permit but is restricted to ducks, mergansers, coots and geese.

Notwithstanding the odd circumstances, the grebes’ cause of death is presumed to be traumatic injuries sustained while trying to land. How they made it so close to a safe destination and yet died in or near Quail Creek remains a mystery.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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