For the Birds: Mergansers are back

Photo by Chris Bosak A common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.

I haven’t written about ducks in a long time. I used to write about them often because waterfowl are arguably my favorite type of bird to watch.

My budding interest in birdwatching became an obsession when I discovered a huge flock of common mergansers on Powder Mill Pond. The number of birds in the flock and the birds’ size and beauty fascinated me. I can’t believe that happened back in the 1990s. Time sure flies.

I’ve been a huge fan of ducks, especially mergansers, ever since. I have canoed hundreds of miles, spent hours behind blinds in swampy areas, and stood on many shorelines with my eye pressed against a spotting scope in search of ducks.

But for whatever reason, I just haven’t written about ducks lately. I guess none of my recent waterfowl experiences have captivated me enough to do so.

That is until the other day, when I saw a few common mergansers in a very unlikely place. Common mergansers typically favor large freshwater bodies, such as lakes, large ponds or wide rivers. Every so often, however, they may be spotted on much smaller bodies of water.

Not only was my recent sighting on a very small body of water, not even big enough to be considered a pond, but it was also in the shadow of a bustling shopping mall.

Danbury Fair is a mall in western Connecticut. It has a large, inaccessible marshy area behind it and a few very small ponds, if you can call them that, on the sides and in the front. It is a highly developed area, so a variety of wildlife does not thrive there.

It is, however, a fairly reliable place to spot birds such as great blue herons, belted kingfishers, mute swans, Canada geese, American and fish crows, and, of course, mallards. During spring and fall migration times some surprises can show up, which is what keeps me coming back to the spot, even for just a quick loop.

In the few years I have been drive-by birding at the mall, I have seen the aforementioned common species, as well as northern pintail, pied-billed grebes and hooded mergansers.

I associate common mergansers with more wild areas, so I was surprised to see two males and one female swimming in one of these tiny ponds with a steady stream of cars driving by on both sides. Two male hooded mergansers and a few mallards shared the pond.

I found a safe place to pull over in my car and checked out the scene through an open passenger’s side window. I grabbed a few quick photos but the ducks slowly swam away in the opposite direction and did not seem comfortable with the stopped car by the pond.

Common mergansers, I’ve discovered over the years, are quite wary and not at all tolerant of any perceived threat. I didn’t want to further stress them during migration so I quickly pulled out and joined the flow of moving cars.

It had been several years since I had seen common mergansers so close. I find them to be the most wary of New England’s three merganser varieties.

Breaking down the merganser varieties requires its own column because they are so different in many ways, but they also share some similarities. I guess you know what next week’s column will be about.

It sure is nice to be writing about ducks again.

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Common merganser at mall

Photo by Chris Bosak
A common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.

Yes, you read that right. I saw a common merganser at Danbury Fair mall the other day. It wasn’t walking the hallways looking for the latest fashions, but it was swimming in a very small pond near the entrance to the mall. Common mergansers are usually seen on large lakes or rivers, but this guy was in a tiny pond in a highly developed area — not common for common mergansers. The next day there were two males and one female common merganser in the pond. These large, handsome ducks are among my favorites and have been for a long time. More on that coming up in the next few days.

Anything can happen during migration periods. Keep your eyes open and let me know what you see out there.

For the Birds: GBBC and divers

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pair of Ring-necked Ducks rest at a pond in Darien, March 2014.

Here is the latest For the Birds column.

I decided to stick to the woods behind my house for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I could have gone off to some nearby birding hot spot to try to log more birds, but I decided to stay put and “bird my patch.”

The action was fairly slow but not terribly so. I didn’t find any out-of-the-ordinary species, but I did get a lot of the common ones. I got my chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers and American goldfinches. A small flock of pine siskins came to the backyard just as I was wrapping things up. I was glad it arrived for the count as this bird has been a regular visitor all winter.

The highlight of the count for me was checking out the beaver pond at the end of the trail that begins behind my house. The pond was mostly frozen, probably about 85 percent so, but the open water that did exist on the far edge held a lone male hooded merganser and nine ring-necked ducks.

Did I say nine? I meant to say 12. No, make that 13. When getting a precise number of birds is important, such as when doing a bird census like the Great Backyard Bird Count, it is important to check and double check the diving ducks.

When I first looked at the ring-necked ducks, I counted nine. I moved along the edge of the pond to change my angle and suddenly I counted 12. I watched for another minute and another duck popped up its head to make 13. I watched carefully for another couple minutes and the number stayed at 13.

Ring-necked ducks are one of the more common diving ducks we see in New England during the winter. Diving ducks are the ones that, true to the description, dive underwater for their prey such as fish and crustaceans. The other types of ducks are dabblers and they simply tip up and stick their heads in the water in their search for food.

Most of our very common ducks are dabblers. Mallards, black ducks, wood ducks and teal are all dabblers. The divers include species such as the mergansers, bufflehead, goldeneye, and, as mentioned, ring-necked ducks.

Dabblers are sometimes difficult to count because there can be so many of them they tend to crowd each other out. But at least you can always see them. They don’t “disappear” underwater.

When you approach a pond and see a flock of divers, you never know whether you are looking at all of them or not. Not that it would have made a whole lot of difference in the grand scheme of things if I had submitted 12 ring-necked ducks, or even my original count of nine, for that matter. But, of course, I was trying to be as accurate as possible so I’m glad I was able to submit the correct number.

All in all, it was a fun count with a decent number of species. How did you do? Feel free to send me an email and let me know.

For more information and international results of the Great Backyard Bird Count, click here.

For the Birds: Northern shoveler highlights trip

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler seen at 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk, Conn., fall 2018.

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers …

Each month brings its own gifts for birdwatchers.

November brings ducks in large numbers to our ponds, lakes and rivers. If December is kind, weather-wise, that continues. If December is cold and frosty, which it often is, those bodies of freshwater freeze and the ducks head farther south.

This year, November has been colder than usual; many of these waters are frozen already, threatening to spoil the “winter duck” fun early. A quick thaw can bring the ducks back, but an extended freeze will push the ducks away until early next spring.

When the inland waters freeze, New England birdwatchers still have the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound to get their duck fix. But even that falls short in some regards. While there are some duck species that may be found in fresh or saltwater, most are an either-or proposition.

When the freeze takes over, New England can pretty much say goodbye to species such as wood duck, common merganser, ring-necked duck, green-winged teal and gadwall. Other freshwater specialty species — such as pintail and shoveler — are also south-bounfd following a deep freeze.

I was lucky to spot one of these specialty species the other day while checking out an old haunt of mine in southwestern Connecticut. I scanned 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk and noticed a good number of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks, a pair of mute swans, and many mallards, domesticated ducks and Canada geese. The domesticated ducks were a surprise. I had never noticed them before when I used to frequent the pond.

One duck stood out among the rest, however. The large white patches that sandwich its otherwise rusty side stood out like a beacon. Even though Continue reading

Northern shoveler video

Here’s a quick video I put together on the northern shoveler drake that I featured in a few posts last week. Feel free to subscribe to my YouTube channel, which I hope to populate with more videos in the coming months. It already has several older videos I posted over the years.

To subscribe to my YouTube channel, click on the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTcik_d7xcke8x6_sjusirw?sub_confirmation=1

Oh, here’s that shoveler video …

A few more northern shoveler photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler seen at 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk, Conn., fall 2018.

You didn’t think I’d post only one full photo of a northern shoveler, did you? Here are a few more. I tried digiscoping for one of the first times, so the quality of the photos are not great. I’ll keep practicing that skill.

Great-looking bird, regardless. Here’s more info on the northern shoveler, from AllAboutBirds.org

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler seen at 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk, Conn., fall 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler seen at 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk, Conn., fall 2018.

For the Birds: Wood ducks in the trees — another first

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Photo by Chris Bosak Male wood duck.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Male wood duck.

No matter how long you’ve been at it, birdwatching always presents new firsts.

This latest first happened to take place right in my backyard. I’ve watched videos and seen photographs of wood ducks perched in trees before, but I’ve never witnessed it myself. I’ve seen plenty of wood ducks on the water and even under people’s birdfeeders, but never perched high in trees before.

I came close once. I was canoeing within the Bashakill Wildlife Management Area in New York years ago and dozens, maybe even hundreds, of wood ducks could be seen and heard in the distance. I focused my binoculars on a dead tree about 100 yards away and saw a huge gathering of these handsome ducks. Most of them were in the water, but a few of them perched on the snag’s low-hanging branches.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Wood Duck mother swims with one of her babies at Woods Ponds in Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Wood Duck mother swims with one of her babies at Woods Ponds in Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

I don’t count this as having seen them perched in trees because the dead, leafless tree was more an extension of the water than anything.

The other day, though, I walked out of the sunroom and onto the deck to fill the feeders. As the door closed behind me I heard the unmistakable “oo-eek, oo-eek” call of a wood duck coming from a tall oak in the backyard.

Then I noticed two ducks flush from the tree and head into the woods. It was a male and female and they made a big circle weaving through the trees and came back to the large oak. A very cool first, especially since it took place in the backyard.

Despite the proliferation of wood duck boxes on the edges of ponds, many wood Continue reading