Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Not a kind of predation I expected

with 41 comments

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On November 15th I drove down to San Marcos, a town about 40 miles south of where I live in Austin, to explore a place I’d discovered on the Internet, the Spring Lake Natural Area. Near the farthest place that I hiked to was a small pond, and on it what I took to be a small duck.* I switched to my longest lens, which I wished could have been longer, and took a few pictures. Then I walked a short distance past some cattails at the edge of the pond, and when I caught sight of the bird again a minute later it seemed to have something white in its mouth. A look through my lens revealed, to my surprise, that the white thing was a frog. Holding the frog in its beak, the bird tossed its own head back and forth, a movement that seemed intended to injure or kill the frog, though I didn’t understand why the bird would want to do that to an animal that I thought was too large for it to eat. After a while I couldn’t see the frog anymore, and I assumed it had either gotten loose or died, had swum or sunk beneath the water. Or maybe I was wrong and the bird had managed to swallow the frog after all.


* Commenters [see below] suggested that this isn’t a duck but a double-crested cormorant or a grebe. I did some research that provided evidence for this being a pied-billed grebe, Podilymbus podiceps. In The Birds of Texas, John L. Tveten writes: “A pied-billed grebe might be mistaken for a small duck, but the beak is like that of a chicken.” In photographs that I took of this bird without the frog in its mouth, the beak does look like a chicken’s rather than a duck’s. I even found a page online that shows pictures of a pied-billed grebe attempting to swallow and finally swallowing a large frog.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 21, 2012 at 6:20 AM

41 Responses

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  1. Oh dear.
    I am often surprised by what my poultry will choose to consume. I have also read that my geese will eat little fishes if given the chance. Thankfully, here they do not get the chance!


    November 21, 2012 at 7:02 AM

    • In preparation for this post I did some Internet searching and found various sites saying that (at least) some kinds of ducks do eat frogs and toads. With “my” duck that came as a surprise, mainly because I didn’t think it was capable of swallowing something so large.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 21, 2012 at 8:45 AM

  2. Instead of an informed opinion, I’ll offer this semi-informed guess. It looks to me as though you might have a photo of a juvenile double-crested cormorant trying for a meal. The way the bird is riding in the water, the coloring and the look of the feathers suggests it, anyhow. Cormorants will go after large fish and sometimes swallow some so large I’d never believe they could get down. Fish have a nice shape for swallowing, though. I’m not sure a frog would go down so easily.

    Whatever, it’s a great photo. I’ve never seen a waterbird of any sort go after a frog, other than a heron. Remember that old song, “High Hopes”?


    November 21, 2012 at 7:05 AM

    • I know essentially nothing about birds, so I’m glad for suggestions. Based on what you wrote, I looked back at some other pictures I took of this bird without anything in its mouth, and the beak does look pointier than what I’d expect from a duck, so that’s more evidence in your favor.

      Like you, I’d never seen any sort of bird attempting to eat a frog, but I do remember the song “High Hopes.” It’s well-chosen for this small bird and its large prey.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 21, 2012 at 10:17 AM

      • Well, six years down the road, I never would have suggested cormorant. It’s clearly a grebe, and they surely can eat yummy things that appear much too large for them. I’ve done a little living and a good bit of learning in the bird realm since 2012. Now, I even know that there are several species of grebes in our state. Along with the Pied-billed, there are the Least, the Western, the Eared, the Horned, and a couple of others.

        I found this useful key for identifying them a few months ago.


        February 10, 2018 at 8:04 PM

        • That’s good avian progress for you, understandable given all the seabirds and shorebirds in your area. I can’t say the same for me. I still mostly rely on other people to identify birds I’ve photographed. On the other hand, I do know a grackle when I see one, or a thousand.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 10, 2018 at 10:11 PM

  3. I can’t imagine a bird trying to hurt or kill another animal if it wasn’t for protection or food, and I guess the frog is no threat. And as I know some ducks eat fish, I guess they eat frogs too. Interesting capture.


    November 21, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    • I’d certainly never seen anything like that. At first I assumed the bird couldn’t eat the frog, so I wondered if the frog was a competitor for other food, but now it seems like the frog was indeed intended as a meal.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 21, 2012 at 3:57 PM

  4. Wow I had no idea ducks were such predators either.

    Brian Comeau

    November 21, 2012 at 8:11 PM

    • The second comment suggested that this might not be a duck but a type of cormorant. Either way, the bird seems too small to swallow a frog of that size. I have enough trouble with a multivitamin tablet.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 21, 2012 at 8:16 PM

      • You and me both with the vitamins…LOL

        I just looked up wood ducks in a book that I have on North American Wildlife and then Googled them and they are known to eat frogs… Could this be a female wood duck?

        Brian Comeau

        November 21, 2012 at 8:28 PM

        • I looked back at some other pictures I took of this bird without anything in its mouth, and the beak looks pointier than what I’d expect from a duck, so that’s more evidence for a juvenile cormorant. There are people here who know a lot about local birds, but I’m not one of them.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 21, 2012 at 8:32 PM

  5. […] the far side of the pond in San Marcos from the place where I took pictures on November 15 of a bird holding a frog in its bill, I found a type of aster known botanically as Symphyotrichum subulatum and colloquially as eastern […]

  6. The bird looks like a grebe to me. Either way, it’s a good “catch” with the camera.


    November 22, 2012 at 3:36 PM

    • That’s a second alternative to a duck. As you said, regardless of what kind of bird it is, the picture was a “catch” I’d never made before.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 22, 2012 at 8:49 PM

  7. Some years ago I was walking a trail in a nature preserve near home and heard screaming… it sounded like a small child in great distress so I began to frantically search the tall grass. I found a snake in the process of swallowing a large frog, and the frog was screaming! Who knew?


    November 23, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    • I’d probably scream too if a large snake was trying to swallow me! In this case, though, I didn’t hear anything from the frog, nor did I see it moving; perhaps it was already dead. I’m relieved that your experience turned out not to involve a child.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 23, 2012 at 11:28 AM

  8. Wonderful capture of what appears to be a grebe but it looks so huge in this pic. So glad that you were able to get such a revealing picture.


    November 23, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    • I’m glad to have come across this scene, too. The bird looks large because I cropped the photograph to show only the important part. Even with my telephoto lens I couldn’t get as close as I wanted, and there was lots of extra water around the bird that contributed nothing to the value of the photograph.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 23, 2012 at 2:16 PM

  9. […] the Spring Lake Natural Area in San Marcos on November 15th, though admittedly less dramatic than a bird with a frog dangling from its beak, is this ball moss, Tillandsia recurvata, on a dead branch. Ball moss isn’t a moss, and only […]

  10. Remarkable image, Steve.


    November 27, 2012 at 9:22 PM

    • As you know from your experience, one of the advantages of putting yourself out there so often with a camera is that from time to time you end up being in the right place at the right time.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 27, 2012 at 9:25 PM

  11. Animals eat some weird stuff. Often, diets can be dramatically shifted by a lack of an essential element, like calcium. I’ve heard reports of fish-eating seabirds picking the bones of dead sheep and cattle in places like the Shetland Islands — and I’ve seen photos of cows eating nestling birds. Both cases the conjecture was that the consumer was working to get the calcium from the bones, and that explained the departure from normal eating habits.

    Opportunistic carnivores.

    Ed Darrell

    November 30, 2012 at 1:13 PM

    • You summed it up well: Animals eat some weird stuff. (And I could add that people, being animals, therefore eat some weird stuff, too.) Thanks for that conjecture about the need for calcium leading to atypical feeding.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 30, 2012 at 2:14 PM

  12. […] I photographed this Christmas cactus at the Spring Lake Natural Area in San Marcos on November 15th, during the same session that brought you pictures of hierba del marrano, ball moss, and most notably a bird holding a frog in its bill. […]

  13. Ha! I was searching for images of juvenile Pie-billed Grebes, which took me to the site you linked – which showed the series of images of the grebe with the frog… of course I stopped trying to identify the mystery bird images on my own camera, and veered here instead…

    Time to catch up and see where you’ve been this week!

    Playamart - Zeebra Designs

    August 12, 2017 at 4:15 PM

    • Ah, this is a golden oldie from five years ago. Now that I’ve looked at the link I remember that series of the grebe working at eating a frog.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 12, 2017 at 4:21 PM

  14. This is a very unusual observation, Steve. I have never seen a Pied-billed Grebe with anything nearly as big in its beak. I also wonder if it was able to swallow the frog. Sometimes cormorants swallow prey that seems destined to get stuck in their throats or food pipes, but I think that happens only rarely.


    November 23, 2021 at 4:40 PM

    • For me the photograph was unusual because I’d never seen any kind of bird with a frog in its beak. You may have noticed that, as someone who knows almost nothing about the avian world, I originally mistook my subject for a duck, and commenters had to set me straight. Now I’m learning from you, who know a whole lot about birds, that something as large as this frog is indeed unusual prey for a pied-billed grebe.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 23, 2021 at 5:35 PM

      • Confusing a grebe for a duck is easy to do. But swallowing a frog as a grebe isn’t.


        November 23, 2021 at 7:41 PM

        • An observer of the world could expand your observation and note that many things are hard to swallow.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 23, 2021 at 8:02 PM

          • True. But what’s particularly hard to swallow is how two individuals or groups of people can look at the same information and draw diametrically opposed conclusions. And that never the twain shall meet. I believe such a society won’t survive.


            November 23, 2021 at 8:38 PM

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