For the Birds: Merganser mania

Photo by Chris Bosak Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck's/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck’s/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.

Last week, I wrote about seeing three common mergansers on a small pond by a busy shopping mall. Mergansers are typically wary and I was surprised to see the fowl there.

The next day, I drove past Candlewood Lake — a large man-made body of water in southwestern Connecticut — and saw literally thousands upon thousands of common mergansers. The lake was still about half frozen and many of the unfrozen portions were covered with mergansers. Some of the mergansers used the icy edges as a resting spot; others swam in the rippling water.

That setting seemed to me to be a more appropriate spot for common mergansers than the mall-area one. It got me to thinking about the merganser family and their water preferences.

We have three types of mergansers in New England: common, hooded and red-breasted. Generally speaking, they all have different water preferences.

Common mergansers are usually spotted on large, freshwater lakes and rivers. Hooded mergansers favor smaller bodies of water and may be found on fresh or brackish water. Red-breasted mergansers may be found on large bodies of fresh, brackish or salt water.

I have yet to see all three mergansers sharing a common body of water, but I have seen hooded and commons together, and hooded and red-breasted mergansers together. All three are generally wary in nature. From my own observations, I find the common to be the most wary and hooded the most brave.

The hooded merganser is the oddball among them in terms of appearance. They are small ducks and the males are handsomely adorned with pewter sides, black backs and black-and-white heads and chests. Their heads are usually fanned to display a large white patch, but can also be flatted to show just a sliver of white. Female hoodeds are similar in size to the male but are duller in color and design.

Male common and red-breasted mergansers are similar in general appearance with dark green heads, red bills, large white bodies and black backs. There are obvious differences between them, too. The common is much larger and smoother looking. Red-breasted merganser males have spiky “haircuts,” light red breasts and slightly darker sides.

The females are slightly more difficult to differentiate. Female commons are larger, brighter and have a dark rusty head with a funky haircut. Female red-breasted mergansers have a funky haircut, too, but are smaller, darker and have duller, brownish heads.

All three merganser varieties have serrated bills for holding onto fish and other wiggly prey. Those bills have earned the family the nickname sawbill.

Ducks are one of my favorite types of birds to watch and mergansers are my favorite family of fowl. So far the spring migration has been a merganser bonanza. I hope it continues.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak A female common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A female Red-breasted Merganser swims in Norwalk Harbor in this March 2014 photo.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Male red-breasted merganser.
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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.

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.