Seeking A Rarity
A rare Western Grebe in Cape May Harbor

A rare Western Grebe in Cape May Harbor

It’s actually enjoyable driving this early in the morning.

You can’t see anything except what is in front of the headlights and there are only a handful of other vehicles on the road at 5am.  I put on some good tunes and begin the hour and a half drive down to Cape May, NJ to seek out a rare bird.

The Cape May Harbor in the early morning before sunrise.

I miscalculate my timing and end up at the harbor in Cape May a solid half-hour before sunrise.  I find the Nature Center where the bird I’m looking for has been reported and park the car.   It’s really dark out and I decide to wait in the car since it’s about 30 degrees with a light breeze.  After about 10 minutes of waiting I start to see some small birds in the water as my eyes have adjusted to the darkness.  I put the car window down and pick up my binoculars and I can see there are a few Bufflehead ducks swimming around.  That is all I need to grab the camera and head down to the shoreline.

if I can brace myself and relax I might be able to make a sharp photo

In the dark it’s hard to see clearly where to place my feet as I climb down the large boulders to the small area of sand at the edge of the water, thankfully it is low tide.  This allows me to get closer to the birds, get a better angle for photos and also somewhat hide myself among the rocks.  With all the movement of me climbing down, the ducks swim away.  I get settled in to a comfortable spot and just try to hold still in the chilly morning wind.  I decide to look through my camera to see what kind of settings I can get and notice that at 8000ISO I am able to get the shutter speed up to 1/30 sec.  I think “if I can brace myself and relax I might be able to make a sharp photo”.  I frame up a photo, relax my whole body, and squeeze off a series of photos.  The photo posted above is one of those photos, it works! 

Not even 5 minutes after I climbed down to the shoreline I see a male Bufflehead coming closer to me.  I know I won’t be able to get a really sharp photo but take a few shots anyway to see what might happen.  The photo below is an unexpected surprise, I catch one of the ducks right as he is diving and it makes for some really cool motion in the photo.  The sun hasn’t even come up and I’m already getting some interesting photos.

A male Bufflehead is a smooth blur as he dives in the early dawn light.

It's so early the street lights are still on in the background as a pair of male Bufflehead swim by.

A trio of Brant fly into the harbor.

I sit still for another 30 minutes, photographing whatever comes close enough and keeping my eyes out for the bird I am seeking.  I’ve come to this specific spot in hopes of photographing a Western Grebe, a bird that is anything but common on our side of the country.  The Western Grebe’s normal range consists of the west coast of the US and sometimes extending to the middle of the country.  Sightings along the east coast of the US are quite rare.

if I can brace myself and relax I might be able to make a sharp photo

My patience wears off finally and I climb up the rocky shore to the road and start walking along the edge of the harbor to see if I can find the Grebe.  As I’m walking along I find a little piece of land that juts out into the water and I head out to get a better look.  As I’m scanning the water with my binoculars I see a large group of ducks off in the distance.  After a more thorough look I can see they are a small flock of Red-Breasted Mergansers, maybe I’ll get lucky and they will come closer, the males are gorgeous.  I’m just about ready to walk back and I see a single bird way out in the distance.  Once again I put the binoculars to my eyes and I’m thrilled!  I can instantly tell by the shape, even though I’ve never seen it in person, that it’s the Western Grebe.  Not knowing where it will go I immediately take a photo just so I have something documenting my sighting.  It’s a tiny dot in the frame but you can still tell what it is.

The normal range of a Western Grebe.

It’s a tiny dot in the frame but you can still tell what it is.

My first sighting of the Western Grebe far out in the water.  If you squint you can kind of see it. 

The Grebe starts swimming in my general direction and joins up with the group of Mergansers I saw a bit earlier.  Slowly, very slowly, it keeps getting closer and closer as it swims along the harbor heading back to where I had started the morning.  I attempt to predict where the bird is going to go and move ahead to that spot, each time climbing down to get near the water.  I’m taking photos, lots of them, not knowing if the bird will come closer but hoping it will keep heading my way.  When the Western Grebe finally stopped swimming it was directly in front of the Nature Center, exactly where it has been reported. 

The Western Grebe joins a small group of Red-Breasted Mergansers.

The Grebe looks right towards me as it begins to get closer to the shore.

Only its head and neck are visible as the Western Grebe's body drops between a set of waves.

The bird seems curious as to what I am and decides to come in for a closer look

By now the tide is starting to come in and there is less and less beach for me to lay on by the minute.  I finally have to lay/hold/bend over the rocks to stay near the water’s edge but it is worth it since the Grebe is coming even closer.  The bird seems curious as to what I am and decides to come in for a closer look.  It keeps, what I’m sure it thinks is a safe distance from me, but comes close enough for some really great photos.  I am so happy as I’m firing off photo after photo of the bird, I can’t wait to see what I get!  After about 15-20 minutes the Grebe has enough of me and swims out to a buoy that it seems to like to stay near and I climbed up the slope and head to my car.  I am so thankful to have had such a successful trip because I know how easy the search for a rare bird can end in failure.  I head off to Cape May State Park to finish off the morning with whatever else I can find.  I love bird photography!

You can really see the brilliant red eye of this Western Grebe once it came in closer to me. 

A male Bufflehead cruises by the shoreline where I am laying.

As if to wave goodbye the Grebe waves its goofy foot in the air, it's quite amusing to watch it do this.

Nature photography has become a very passionate hobby of mine and whenever I get a chance I love to get outside and enjoy being outdoors. I am also the co-owner of KGM Expressions, a wedding and portrait photography business, with my wife Kim. This is how we make our living and I love that we get to do that together.