"We saw a long string of big floating clumps of birds, probably around 500 individuals altogether, floating around offshore out in the kelp, drifting northwest with the winds, splashing around as they prepared to dive, and reappearing again in with their neighbors. These birds appeared to be brown, not black or black and white. The binocs didn’t give us any details at all. I know this isn’t much to go by, but we thought we’d see if you know what we’re talking about. Any thoughts you might have would be helpful. If you are able to tell us what they were, that will make you the Queen of the Universe!"
Queen of the Universe! Now how could I turn that down! ;)
In this case, there are two things going for us. Alice explained the setting, provided a general description of the birds and their behavior, and recounted the numbers involved — all important. I spent a few minutes looking offshore myself on April 15, just two days before, so I have an idea of which species might match this description...and, just by chance, I took photos. Perhaps I can be Queen of the Universe!
Here's a distant photo of a large raft of small brown birds.
Next I'll zoom in so you can see some of the field marks.
Note the small size and compact body; short, thin bill; peaked head; dark neck and back blending into beautiful chestnut-colored sides and flanks. On some birds you can see what looks like a bright golden patch on the side of the head. These are the golden "ears" of the Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) in breeding plumage.
Here's a photo that shows some of the diving behavior. The grebes almost look like porpoises in this picture!
And I can't help including one more image. When I was reviewing the photos, I was surprised to see the feet of many of the grebes in the next picture. Their feet are positioned very far back on the body, so look for them trailing behind (especially on birds near the center/right of the photo).
So, after Alice sees this post, I'll have to find out if she thinks she saw Eared Grebes yesterday.