The Bizarre Walk of the Western Grebe Caught on Camera

Western Grebes famously run on water, but few ornithologists have seen them using their aquatic feet to scamper across land.
Western Grebe. Video: Mick Thompson/Eastside Audubon

Western Grebes are renowned for their ability to “run” on water, but for a long time, many believed that their oblong bodies and rear-positioned feet prevented them from walking on land. In fact, even David Sibley wrote as much in his Sibley Guide to Birds, noting that they are "incapable of walking." Soon after the book was published, though, Sibley said he heard from many people that Western Grebes certainly could walk and that the behavior had been known for decades.  

Then, in 2012, photographer Larry Engles managed to photograph a Western Grebe walking upright. He sent the photographic evidence to David Sibley, who promptly shared the image in a blog post entitled “Western Grebes can walk!”

As it turns out, there’s more than just photo evidence of this behavior. More recently, Engles' friend Mick Thompson, a photographer and board member of the Eastside Audubon Societycaptured footage of a grebe awkwardly stumbling along on two legs.

Thompson captured the rare video last year while photographing a Western Grebe on the beach in Ocean Shores, Washington. As people approached the bird, it got up and walked briefly, Thompson says, at which point he immediately switched his camera to video—just in case it performed the unusual behavior again. It did. “He just jumped up and started running up the beach,” Thompson says. The bird stayed vertical for about 20 or 30 yards, raising its wings as if steadying itself on a balance beam.

Although it’s now more widely known that Western Grebes can indeed walk, it’s still an exceptionally rare behavior. “I've probably seen tens of thousands of Western Grebes, and I've never witnessed this action myself, ” Kenn Kaufman, field editor at Audubon, said in an email. But if you consider what Western Grebes are capable of doing in water, Kaufman says, it “makes sense” that they could demonstrate a similar behavior on land.

The grebe caught on video was likely bolting toward the ocean. Western Grebes can’t take off into flight from land, so they need a runway of water to catch air. And while some grebes might scoot away on land using their feet, this bird showed a talent for a bipedal escape—what people once thought was impossible.

As a bonus, if you really want to enjoy this clip to the maximum, try watching it with a soundtrack. We promise you won't regret it.