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October 8, 2014     Portola Reporter
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October 8, 2014
 

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Bulletin, Record, Progressive, Reporter Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014 111 REGIONAL A pair of Clark's grebes enjoy their summer on Lake Almanor. Photo by Willie Hall Miriam S. Cody Staff Writer mcody@plu masnews.corn or the last five years, Picas Audubon .... soeietTt,.ik ,et on Lake Almanor and lg ta about their populations, migration and nesting habits. The focus of the project is to help the grebes survive on the lake by stabilizing water levels. In 2010, the water surface elevation dropped more rapidly than in any other year and grebes had the lowest reproductive success. David Arsenault, executive director of Plumas Audubon, believes there is a direct link between water levels and the use of Lake Almanor Water by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. "Water management is the big issue," says Arsenault. Water is drawn for use in creating hydroelectric energy at irregular intervals, causing the water.to drop drastically after a long plateau. This forces the grebes to relocate, unfortunately leaving their nests of eggs behind to be eaten by predators. This affects grebe populations on the lake and makes life difficult for the birds. Arsenault hopes to find a way to stabilize the water level throughout the grebes' nesting season. There are 5,000 Clark's and western grebes, as well as smaller populations of other species of the bird, on Lake Almanor now. Although the two species are very similar and nest side by side on the lake, they have slightly different plumage and bills. The grebes migrate here to breed and nest, and then head back to the coast for the winter. That is why maintaining a safe breedilg habitat for them by working to steady water levels is so important to Plumas Audubon. Grebes in love Grebes have'long relationships with the same partner. They strengthen their pair bond with elaborate courtship ceremonies, which include rushing, synchronized dancing, and calling to each other. Mother and father work side by side during nesting, building and maintaining their home together. When the female grebe is incubating her eggs, the male stays near her and reconstructs the nest as it falls apart. Nests are made from pondweed, willows, cattails and other vegetation, which can't be relied on for long without maintenance. Working together Grebe colonies also fish and hunt together, strategically herding schools of minnows into the shores and banks of the lake. They take advantage of power in numbers, although they do forage for food individually. Arsenault says he has seen as many as 300 grebes, known for their excellent diving and swimming skills, head for the dark bottom of the lake all at once while hunting this way. The grebes like to stay in deep water for the most part, except during nesting. While grebes are great swimmers and divers, they don't fly much. They also cannot walk, save for afew awkward steps before they fall. Their legs are too far back on their bodies, making for a great rear propeller in the water, but not A hatchling grebe takes in the new world from his nest, where mother and father have been working together to keep him safe. Photo by David Hamilton Western grebes strengthen their pair bond with courtship rituals. "Rushing" is a form of synchronized dancing the couples do in unison, flapping their Wings and running across the water. Photo by David ArsenauIt so great for strutting on land. The study Audubon's project was inspired by the sad number of grebes affected by the SS Jacob Luckenbach, which collided with another vessel and sank off the coast of central California in 1953. This decaying tanker wasn't discovered as the source of many mysterious oil spills until 2002, at which time the federal government created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The Luckenbach Trustee Council funds the Lake Almanor surveys as a continued effort to repair the damage done. The initial four-year grant has been renewed, allowing Plumas Audubon its fifth year of study in 2014. " The study involves counting grebes from beats and from the shore, counting nests and 66 management is the big issue. 99 David Arsenault Plumas Audubon Executive Director watching cameras placed near nests to determine potential threats to populations. A count of 5,000 is down from last year by a few hundred, but higher than previous years by thousands. Arsenault believes part of the reason for the grebes' success this year was a prolonged water level plateau throughout the summer. Threats Certain types of disturbance cause the grebes to become restless and occasionally leave the colony. Gulls and ravens sometimes eat the eggs, but usually only after nests have been ". abandoned due to uninhabitable water levels. i River otters and bald eagles are known to attack adult grebes. The birds also get tangled in fishing Line along the shores of the lake, and where lines o' repeatedly snag underwater. Still, none of these natural or recreational  disturbances seem to affect grebe populationa as much as drastic changes in water surface : elevation. Audubon interns Plumas Audubon has launched an " internship program, and has had 13 interns this year. One is from Quincy High School,  and two are from Feather River College. Arsenault is passionate about this program, and continues to try to strengthen it. "It's hard to get experience in field biology, conservation and those kinds of fields, so I think it's important to help provide those opportunities for kids. And it helps us accomplish our work and do more conservation." You can learn more about grebes, Plumas Audubon and the internship program at plumasaudubon.org, or by visiting the group's: Facebook page.