A Mouth Full

by Rex Burress

I have seen some pretty big mouthfuls in connection to animals swallowing food - but the "grebe gobble" of January 2003 tops them all.

A sunny day had descended on the rain-drenched California foothill country, and I was off to check the birds at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. After some frigid, gray days, the sudden warmth was a spring wake-up call to all things great and small, and even the brush rabbits had stepped out of the thickets to doze in the sun. Of course, the Northern Harrier hawks were sailing over the marshes, an exercise they seem to indulge in whatever the weather - and I have never seen them make a catch. What are they looking for? Or are they merely looking?

After making the Visitor's Loop and having lunch, I put on my 400mm lens and walked the trail to the Overlook, pausing along the way in search of photographic opportunities, especially in a small pond where a Pied-billed Grebe played elusive in the cattails. That little diver amazes me the way it can softly sink beneath the surface and then sneak up for a quick breath with only its head showing for a second like some kind of snake. Their silent winter slinking does not reveal the loud, loon-like roar they emit at spring mating.

The elevated Overlook platform allows you to look our over a canal and into some select marsh with tules and cattails, and sometimes the water is blanketed with a white cover of Snow Geese. On that day, however, the geese were away, but there were plenty of dabbler ducks, including three species of male teals all together - Green-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, and Blue-winged Teal.

My waterfowl watching was interrupted by a splash in the canal, and much to my surprise a Pied-billed Grebe emerged holding a giant crayfish in its tiny beak! What a mouthful! What a viewpoint! The drama had popped out of stillness only a few feet below my vantage point.

The crayfish had immense red claws and seemed to be almost half the size of the small grebe, but there was some kind of determination in both participants - the grebe in dismantling the catch, and the crayfish in defending its life. The crayfish actually clamped down on the grebe's neck, but with a lot of shaking, the claw was disengaged, promptly to be snatched and twisted off the brittle arthropod. They both went under, and then reemerged, and both claws were removed.

I grabbed my tripod with camera and eased in for the shot of the year, but the grebe noticed my presence and dove, emerging some yards down stream, but still retaining the crayfish. At least, I got a record shot.

What now? Surely that diminutive diver would not try and swallow that hard-shelled, over-sized crawdaddy. But there was some juggling around with that deft bill, and much to my surprise, it was positioning for a down-the-gullet slide. Up went the load that seemed twice as big as the grebe's neck, and down went the crawfish, tail-first, legs and antennae all over the place!! At first, I thought it wouldn't make it, poised halfway down - the grebe paused as if to gather neck-strength, but, finally, a mighty gulp and a noticeable knot rippled right out of sight into an over-stuffed stomach.

For a moment, the grebe seemed shocked with a dazed look in its eyes, and maybe surprised at its own accomplishment as it ruffled its feathers. Under it went again, and I thought surely not another crayfish. After awhile, I saw the grebe resting in a patch of water-fern five hundred yards upstream. It had swum underwater, through a fallen tree tangle, to reach that quiet place as if disgusted at my intrusion into its private meal, and, somehow, it was proceeding to digest that catch. That was a mouthful ... and a stomach full.

It isn't often that you catch nature in action and actually see some of their intimate activities. I had to go all the way to the Florida Everglades to see another mouthful - a snaky-necked Anhinga bird spearing a pound-sized pan-fish, tossing it off the beak into the air, and catching it - and swallowing - all in one motion. I fully recorded that episode from the boardwalk with my 400mm, catching the unbelievable in action for future reference.

Since I am limited in swallowing large bites - almost choking to death once on a Tylenol pill - I am doubly amazed at the swallowing abilities of some animals. I have seen pelicans load a tremendous amount of fish in their pouch, and then gulp the whole business down without any sign of choking. Cormorants, herons, and gulls can do that too. Since they don't have hands or knives, they depend on beak maneuverability and neck flexibility to consume the protein they need.

I once observed a Black-crowned Night-Heron trying to swallow a two-foot garter snake, and it was another battle. The snake actually had wrapped itself around the bird's neck, but finally the right end slipped down the passageway of no return, and the thrashing bulge disappeared.

Watching a snake swallowing an over-sized rodent is also a revealing moment. After a king snake compresses its victim, there is a mouth-stretching procedure, and the entire parcel glides into the body, becoming a lump in what looks like a tumorous reptile.

If anything separates mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom, it is the presence of hands, also crudely seen in the monkey kingdom, appendages enabling the omnivore to tear its prey into more reasonable bite-sized portions. Even though we don't have wings, or a cleverly designed beak, be thankful for hands!

2003 Rex Burress
January 16, 2003