Western Grebe

Admission Date: 
February 10, 2011
Release Date: 
February 14, 2011
Location of Rescue: 
Lake Anna, Louisa County, Virginia
Cause of Admission / Condition: 
Swallowed a fish hook
Patient Status: 

The Wildlife Center received a rare patient on February 10 -- a Western Grebe. On its way to becoming well-known in the birding community, this unusual water bird had been spotted swimming and feeding on Lake Anna for several days.  Western Grebes are typically found in the western half of the U.S. and Mexico, and regularly winter along the West Coast.   According to the Virginia Society of Ornithology, Western Grebes are on the Official State List, which means that there has been at least one other official sighting of a Western Grebe in Virginia.  However, according to many bird guide range maps, Western Grebes are a rare occurrence on the East Coast. 

On February 10, two birders, Mr. and Mrs. David Paton, were at Lake Anna with friends to catch a glimpse of the visitor.  As they watched, the grebe dove under water to catch a fish -- right beside a fishing boat.  As it surfaced, the birding group could clearly see that the grebe had swallowed the fish hook and line.  They saw the fishermen reel in the grebe -- and were right there to meet the boat as it docked.  They quickly took the Western Grebe to the Animal Medical Center of Louisa.  Dr. Kristine Jones recommended that the bird be taken to the Wildlife Center of Virginia for further care, so the Patons made the drive to deliver the bird as quickly as possible. 

Once admitted, the trio of Wildlife Center veterinarians -- Drs. Dave McRuer, Miranda Sadar, and Kelly Flaminio -- used the fluoroscope to visualize where the hook was in the anesthetized bird's throat.  A fluoroscope is a piece of equipment that acts like a real-time reverse x-ray, and is especially helpful with cases such as these so that the patient can continue to be moved through the field of view.   The hook was spotted --  in the lower esophagus.  Dr. Miranda used the endoscope to look into the bird's throat with a small camera.  Using the endoscope to keep an eye on the hook, she used a long pair of thin forceps to attempt to grasp the hook.  Unfortunately, this technique didn't work;  due to the depth of the hook it became increasingly difficult to visualize the hook with the endoscope while using the graspers at the same time.  The veterinary team then tried a different approach; this time they went back to the fluoroscope to help guide them in grabbing the hook.  At this point, the team realized that the hook was pretty deeply embedded in the wall of the esophagus -- and could not be grasped and removed using this technique either.  At this point the vets changed strategies:  they opted to go for the most direct route and and to try to remove the hook through the grebe's neck.  After Dr. Dave located the sharp end of the hook using the fluoroscope, Dr. Miranda was able to grasp onto the hook through the outside of the bird's neck to keep it in place; Dr. Kelly then poked the end of it through the the skin of the bird's neck.  The other alternative would have been to go through an even more invasive and lengthy surgery; the vets decided to finish the job and decrease the amount of time that the bird needed to be under anesthesia.  The Western Grebe received antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and pain medications.  The veterinary and rehabilitation staff worked to keep the bird swimming as much as possible to maintain its waterproof feathers and decrease its stress.

February 11 update

The Western Grebe was doing well this morning when the veterinary staff checked in on it; the bird appeared to be bright and feisty, and was promptly put in the swimming tub inside the Center’s treatment room.  The grebe did not eat his fish last night, but when a few silverside fish were added to the swimming tub this morning, the grebe immediately started spearing them. Staff wildlife rehabilitator Dani Stumbo calculated that this grebe will need 100 grams of silversides a day to maintain its current weight; this translates into about 100 small fish a day.  So far, the bird appears to have eaten about 40 fish today; the staff are encouraged by this and hope that it continues to keep up its appetite!  On a side note, this Western Grebe’s beak was measured yesterday to determine if it is male or female.  Because the plumage of both sexes is the same, beak measurements are more telling.  Based on the length of the beak, it is believed that this bird is a male. 

February 14 update

On the morning of February 14, Dr. Miranda examined the grebe and determined that he was ready to be returned to the wild.  Mr. and Mrs. Paton came to the Center, picked up the grebe, and transported his back to Lake Anna.  In an email to the Center, the Patons reported, "The Western Grebe was released on 2/14/11 at 2:45 near Stubbs Bridge (Rt. 612) on Lake Anna. All went well and the Grebe ("Willy") seemed to be content and happy. He joined a Pied-Billed Grebe and some Coots for a while and then started exploring the lake by heading towards the bridge and then started down the other side of the lake." On the morning of February 15 the Patons further reported, "At about 9:25 AM Willy was sighted very near his release point, eyeing some shad that the gulls were diving into. Will check on him later on with another update." Additional information on rescue and release          

Your special donation will help the Center to provide food, medicine, and ongoing medical care to  the 2,300 patients the Center will admit this year.  Whether a common species or a "rare bird", the Center is there to help, and we rely on the support of caring individuals.  Please help!