GLENWOOD, Minn. — Jim Elsey wanted something to get him outside during the COVID-19 pandemic when interacting with people was not an option. His talent with his Nikon D500 camera, and no shortage of wildlife around his home on Lake Minnewaska, provided him a perfect opportunity.

Elsey, retired at 81 years old, has photographed many birds that include eagles, ospreys and hummingbirds, along with a family of foxes that frequent his Glenwood, Minn., backyard.

“It’s been a way to stay away from people and still get outside and enjoy nature,” he said.

This spring, Elsey had an opportunity with the help of two local organizations in the Prairie Lakes Audubon Society and Alexandria’s Let’s Go Fishing chapter to capture some beautiful photos of western grebes on Lake Osakis.

The grebes have been frequent residents of Lake Osakis for many years. They arrive in the spring from their winter range on the Pacific Coast and nest in the shallow, marshy areas of the lake.

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The western grebes have a black head, gray back and bright white chest and belly with bright red eyes and a yellow beak. Their sleek frame makes them excellent at diving underwater and catching their favorite meals of small fish.

A pair of western grebes rush across the open water on Lake Osakis in late May. The rushing -- where the birds burst across the surface in unison with each other before diving under water -- is part of a meticulous courtship that male and female grebes take part in each spring. They then raise usually two or three young through the summer before returning to their winter range on the Pacific coast. (Photo by Jim Elsey)
A pair of western grebes rush across the open water on Lake Osakis in late May. The rushing -- where the birds burst across the surface in unison with each other before diving under water -- is part of a meticulous courtship that male and female grebes take part in each spring. They then raise usually two or three young through the summer before returning to their winter range on the Pacific coast. (Photo by Jim Elsey)

The grebes put on quite a spectacle throughout a meticulous courtship during their breeding season once they arrive in the spring. Males and females announce their presence with loud vocalizations.

They show off for a potential mate by dipping their heads under water and shaking off. The birds eventually face off and loudly call back and forth before the headliner. Side-by-side, the grebes reach their necks high and arch their heads back as they rise above the water and rush along the surface in a short burst together before diving under.

Once pairs are established, the grebes build their nest in cover such as bulrushes or cattails by diving to gather up moss and other aquatic vegetation. The birds are ready to mate once the material has been molded together to form a floating nest that they secure to the reeds.

A female lays two or three eggs, and the birds share the duties of catching fish and incubating the eggs for approximately 24 days before they hatch.

“They say that there’s several hundred birds in the area,” Elsey said after photographing both the courting ritual and then going back to get photos of the grebes with their chicks in June. “There were several we saw (during the birds’ courting ritual) and when we came back weeks later, there were birds pretty much spread throughout the lake.”

A pair of western grebe chicks reach for a perch caught by their parent on Lake Osakis in June of 2021. (Photo by Jim Elsey)
A pair of western grebe chicks reach for a perch caught by their parent on Lake Osakis in June of 2021. (Photo by Jim Elsey)

Elsey was one of the local residents who took advantage of an opportunity to go out on Lake Osakis with the help of the local Let’s Go Fishing chapter — an organization that volunteers to take seniors on fishing and sight-seeing trips with pontoons on the many local lakes around the Alexandria area. Elsey had been to a couple of Prairie Lakes Audubon Society meetings and received their newsletter that noted the opportunity to make the trip to see the birds.

“Both are great groups and provide many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors,” Elsey said of Let’s Go Fishing and the local chapter of the Audubon Society.

Western grebes were the main attraction during the pontoon ride on an afternoon in late May, but Lake Osakis is ripe with activity for many bird species that time of year. The group was greeted by the chorus of sounds from birds that included common terns, black terns, western grebes, and red-necked grebes.

The male and female western grebes, shown here with their two chicks on Lake Osakis in June of 2021, share a lot of the responsibilities for raising their young that includes both sitting on the eggs during the nearly 24-day incubation process. (Photo by Jim Elsey)
The male and female western grebes, shown here with their two chicks on Lake Osakis in June of 2021, share a lot of the responsibilities for raising their young that includes both sitting on the eggs during the nearly 24-day incubation process. (Photo by Jim Elsey)

Viola Riggle, president of the Prairie Lakes Audubon chapter, said Battle Point Park is a good place to watch for birds along the shores and in the trees. But to really take advantage of the bird watching opportunities on Osakis, it is often best to be on the water.

“In order to see many of the western and red-necked grebes, the common terns and other birds that like that low lake area for breeding, one really needs a boat to get out to see them,” Riggle said. “You can see a few from shore, but for the most part they are out farther in the lake, which makes it hard to see them in any detail with just binoculars or a scope.”

Elsey happily accepted the opportunity to get back in the pontoon with Let’s Go Fishing after the nesting season once the chicks had hatched. That return trip in late June did not disappoint as he photographed the young riding on the back of their mother or father while the other bird dived for food.

A western grebe surfaces with a perch in its beak as its young chick looks up. The western grebe's long, narrow features with small wings, and legs far back on its body make them ideal swimmers for catching small fish species, but they rarely step foot on dry land or take flight other than their spring and fall migrations. (Photo by Jim Elsey)
A western grebe surfaces with a perch in its beak as its young chick looks up. The western grebe's long, narrow features with small wings, and legs far back on its body make them ideal swimmers for catching small fish species, but they rarely step foot on dry land or take flight other than their spring and fall migrations. (Photo by Jim Elsey)

Small perch were the fish of choice on this day. The chicks eagerly reached for the meal once their parent surfaced with the catch.

Elsey noted that they did not want to pressure the grebes too much. He used a long lens on his Nikon to capture the up-close views. People who watch the birds in the spring should keep their distance, especially from the grebes’ nesting colonies during the incubation period.

It might take a boat and timing a trip right in the spring, but Lake Osakis can provide quite an opportunity for bird watchers who want to see one of the more unique spectacles the outdoors offers in Minnesota.

“It’d be hard to miss them if you were fishing,” Elsey said of his second pontoon trip to Osakis. “There were quite a few spread out, male and female and two and sometimes three young. It’s kind of cool to see them interact.”