Wild Wanderings: Divers at Inspiration Lake

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada A rare Red-necked Grebe enjoys a meal on Inspiration Lake.

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada
A rare Red-necked Grebe enjoys a meal on Inspiration Lake.

Six lakes spread across Kentlands and Lakelands. Five of them are lined up next to one another, which makes this area perfect for birding. There’s always something interesting to see here, especially during this time of year because water birds are on the move.

I like to walk the path between Inspiration Lake and Lake Nirvana, but my final route depends on the birds that I see on the water. I usually take the Inspiration Lake Hiking Trail, then the Lake Street Hiking Trail, then when I’m finished birding these walkways, I drive over to Lake Placid and check out the birds around Peace Island. These locations aren’t physically marked, but any GPS app will identify the lakes and landmarks.

The lakes are considered birding hotspots in Maryland, designated on eBird.org as “Darnestown Rd. Ponds,” because they are home to a diverse array of species. The lakes have hosted rare birds over the years, including one that I recently found in the middle of Inspiration Lake—a Red-necked Grebe. Two grebe species that are common in Gaithersburg are the Pied-billed and the Horned; therefore, the Red-necked Grebe was a very pleasant surprise. What made this sighting rare was that this species isn’t typically seen so far inland because it overwinters along the Atlantic Coast. In my opinion, the timing was right for a sighting because breeding season is around the corner and Maryland is on their migration path north.

When I first spotted the grebe, I noticed what looked like a large, out of place stone, drifting in the center of the lake. But stones don’t drift, so it was clear to me that I was looking at a water bird, but I needed more information before identifying it. Through my binoculars I could see that the bird was asleep, but unlike ducks and other water birds, its neck was back against its body and its bill was tucked in front toward its breast. (Ducks tuck their bills toward their tails.) That’s how I knew it was grebe, but the giveaway to the specific species was its large size and a bit of rust-red feathers that I could see on the back of its neck. After about an hour, the grebe woke up and was active. It was only then that its heavy, pointed bill was visible and the full extent of the color on its neck was revealed. Shortly thereafter, it was asleep again.

Grebes, though duck-like, are not ducks. They are the only species of bird classified in the Podicipedidae family, which means that they are one of a kind! Similar to diving ducks, grebes dive below the surface of the water, immersing their entire bodies, using their specialized feet to propel them as they hunt for fish and other goodies.

The rare grebe wasn’t the only water bird I saw. Several species of diving duck were present, but surprisingly, there weren’t any dabbling ducks in sight. Dabblers are water birds that reach below the surface of the water, head first, bottoms up, to tear away at aquatic vegetation and other morsels that they might find. Mallards, Black Ducks, and Wood Ducks are just a few of the dabblers that can be found in Gaithersburg.

The divers that I spotted included Redheads, Hooded Mergansers, and Ringnecked Ducks, which were all outshined by the Red-necked Grebe. But with such an incredible hotspot, right in the heart of Gaithersburg, there’s always something beautiful to see, even if it is asleep. Inspiration Lake is located at 501 Firehouse Lane, Gaithersburg, MD 20878 and can be accessed via Darnestown Road.

Please send your questions about birds and wildlife around town to orietta@towncourier.com.