Look Out, Mergansers Passing Through

Daytime temperatures are starting to rise. Spring is returning to New England. Slowly but surely, the open water works its way back into the cove. As the ice line recedes, more and more water fowl start to visit again. This is certainly a great time on the lake, as hibernating species come back to life and many birds take flight starting their long migration north. One morning, as the fog clears, there are several pairs of common mergansers actively playing in the cove. Sure enough, two days later hooded mergansers join them. This time of year, both the common and hooded mergansers drop in for a few days on their way further north.

Both species are easily spotted. The male common merganser with its blackish green head, black upper feathers, orange hooked bill, and snowy white breast is easy to spot. They typically travel in small flocks showing up in our rivers and lakes. The female colors are more muted; she has a bright rusty-brown head that is often fluffed up. This may be her way of ensuring the males are noticing her too.

Often traveling with the common merganser are the hooded mergansers. These dapper birds, are the smallest of the merganser species while the common are the largest. The two are quite a contrast in size when swimming and playing together. Like their larger friends, the hooded mergansers are easy to spot. Obvious features of the male include, a black back and black bill, a white breast with bold vertical bars, and a crested black and white head. When the male raises his crest, the thin horizontal white strips turn into a gorgeous white fan that cannot be missed. The female hooded merganser counterpart, like the common merganser, is much more muted with brownish gray flanks and a reddish crest. Like her partner, she will also fan out her crest making her easy to spot.

Unfortunately, both beautiful species do not stay around long in this area. They head further north for breeding and cooler days. When it is time for breeding, the mergansers prefer to nest in tree cavities or nest boxes where provided. In other parts of the world, they can be spotted nesting in holes in cliffs or on steep banks considerable distance from the water. The common female typically lays 6-17 eggs, while the hooded lay 9-11. Both will only lay one brood a season. Immediately after hatching, the mother takes her ducklings in her bill and heads to the nearest river or lake. Here they feed on freshwater invertebrates and small fish. They stay with their mother until they reach the ripe old age of 60 to 70 days. Around this same time, they take their first flight. The young females have the next two years to play and hang out before they start their own brood. So, what are the males doing while the female is sitting on the nest and then raising the young?

Well, they are generally a wary bird. Especially during breeding season with one or more of them staying on sentry duty to warn the rest of the flock of any approaching danger. The rest of them can be found floating around leisurely in a similar position to ducks. They are interesting in that they also swim deep into the water like cormorants foraging and propelling themselves forward by stroking with both feet. Again, like the cormorants, while resting, they can often be found sitting on a rock in the middle of the lake or stream, half-opening their wings to air themselves out and enjoy the rays of the sun. When it is time for flight, they rise from the water flapping along the surface for many yards, until airborne. Then they are off with a burst of speed and strong rapid flight. For those of us on Webster Lake, neither species stay for the breeding season. They are here for only a short stay. We never know if we are seeing their last takeoff for the season until they are gone. Then we are left with our memories of these gorgeous birds until they return the following Spring.

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