Thousands of eared grebes were found dead or injured at Dugway Proving Ground’s English Village Monday morning after crash landing onto wet pavement.
According to Dugway Proving Ground officials, up to 5,000 of the birds were looking for water to land on and rest, but were fooled by wet, glistening pavement caused by an early-morning snowstorm.
Al Vogel, public affairs specialist at Dugway, said he learned from Dugway’s wildlife biologist that eared grebes typically only migrate at night.
“At night or in the early morning, the paved surfaces were wet and glistening and the birds mistook them for a pond, so they landed on that glistening surface, but unfortunately it injured many of them because they expected to hit water,” he said.
In December 2011, a similar event occurred when around 1,500 eared grebes crash landed into a Walmart parking lot in Cedar City, thinking the parking lot was a body of water.
The eared grebe is an aquatic bird that breeds in western and central North America, as well as in some areas of South America, Eurasia and Africa, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The species is highly social and forms breeding colonies made up of thousands of birds. Each bird is about 12 inches long.
During the breeding season, it favors shallow lakes and ponds with large macroinvertebrate communities. In the western U.S., locations of breeding colonies vary from year to year. After each breeding season, however, most eared grebes move to the highly saline environments of either Mono Lake in California or the Great Salt Lake. There they feast on brine shrimp and alkali flies.
The eared grebe is the most common grebe in Utah, and it regularly breeds throughout the state, according to the DWR. Because the eared grebe is an aquatic bird, once it lands, it cannot take off without water due to its body structure.
“The eared grebe cannot take off from land,” Vogel said. “It must take off from water due to evolution. They’re just designed as a waterfowl. The way their bone structure and physical properties are designed is they really can’t walk. They paddle, and since they can’t walk, they can’t get up enough speed to take off. They’re just stranded on the ground.”
As of early Monday afternoon, around 2,000 birds had been rescued and placed on ponds around Dugway. According to a press release, officials believe between 2,000 and 5,000 birds were involved in the event.
“They’re still trying to tally the number of injured birds and they’re uncertain of the total number involved yet,” Vogel said.
Dugway’s Environmental Programs Office is coordinating with the DWR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to safely remove the birds from Dugway. According to the press release, personnel are currently focusing efforts on saving birds that are alive and transporting them to areas with water as quickly as possible to enhance their chances of survival. Birds that did not survive will be picked up and transported later.
“They’re taking them to nearby ponds so they can rest on the pond for a bit and then take off from there,” Vogel said. “I’m not sure which ponds they’ll be taken to, because there are a few here in the area. They’re taking them to the only bodies of water we have.”
Vogel said the dead waterfowl will be taken to the landfill, and he expects coyotes and kit foxes to eat well for a couple of days. Waterfowl with injured wings and broken legs will be assessed before being released.
“[Wildlife officials] are administering to the injured birds,” Vogel said. “They will assess their injuries and whether or not they’re major. I’m not sure what the final disposition will be for those birds. I haven’t been able to talk to the wildlife biologist here because he and his people are all out in the field rounding up the birds.”
Vogel said the majority of the birds that landed at Dugway were gathered throughout Monday. To report additional bird sightings, please call (435) 831-3448.