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.

A few hoodies to end the year

Photo by Chris Bosak A Hooded Merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., Dec. 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Hooded Merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., Dec. 2016.

Here’s a nice male Hooded Merganser I spotted at a pond in Danbury, Conn., on the second-to-last day of 2016. Goodbye 2016. Let’s see what 2017 brings us.

Happy New Year and thanks for supporting http://www.BirdsofNewEngland.com in 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Hooded Merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., Dec. 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Hooded Merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., Dec. 2016.

Hooded Mergansers handle the snow

Photo by Chris Bosak Four male Hooded Mergansers swim in Norwalk Harbor near Veterans Park in Norwalk, Conn., Jan. 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Four male Hooded Mergansers swim in Norwalk Harbor near Veterans Park in Norwalk, Conn., Jan. 2015.

Much of Norwalk Harbor was frozen on Tuesday afternoon, but the spots that weren’t frozen made for ideal hunting grounds for Hooded Mergansers. It was the first measurable snow of the year for coastal southwestern Connecticut so I figured I’d take a quick drive to see what photographic opportunities presented themselves. Hooded Mergansers are often the only birds around on such days. Ducks, with their down feathers close to their bodies, are supremely adapted to handle such conditions.

Wood Ducks not happy with Redhead

Photo by Chris Bosak A Redhead swims alongside a Ring-necked Duck in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Redhead swims alongside a Ring-necked Duck in Darien in March 2014.

In a previous post I mentioned I had seen a Redhead at Spring Grove Cemetery in Darien, Conn. It was the first time I had seen a Redhead at this small pond and it shared the water with Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, Canada Geese and Mallards.

At one point or another, I saw the Redhead “cross paths” with each of the other kinds of ducks. With one exception, the other ducks and geese basically paid no attention to the Redhead. In fact, at one point it was diving among a small flock of Canada Geese. It resurfaced next to a different goose every time and none of the geese seemed to mind.

It hung around the Ring-necked Ducks quite a bit and my suspicion is that it arrived with those ducks and will likely depart with them as well. Just a guess.

Five Hooded Mergansers passed the Redhead at one point with no drama.

Photo by Chris Bosak A flock of Hooded Mergansers swims past a Redhead at a Darien pond in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A flock of Hooded Mergansers swims past a Redhead at a Darien pond in March 2014.

But the Wood Ducks did not like the Redhead getting too close. The Redhead drifted over from one side and the Wood Ducks from the other. When they got close enough, the male Wood Duck lowered its head and snapped repeatedly at the Redhead. Then the female Wood Duck did the same thing. The Redhead casually drifted away from the Woodies, but apparently not fast enough as the male Wood Duck reacted even more strongly to shoo away the somewhat rare New England visitor.

Fun stuff, this birdwatching hobby.

Photo by Chris Bosak A pair of Wood Ducks show their displeasure with a nearby Redhead in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pair of Wood Ducks show their displeasure with a nearby Redhead in Darien in March 2014.

Redhead makes surprise visit

Photo by Chris Bosak Redhead seen in Darien pond in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Redhead seen in Darien pond in March 2014.

I drove past the pond at first, assuming nothing of note would be there. But that nagging voice in the back of my head said: “Go back and check. It’ll take five minutes and you’re right here anyway.” I listened to that voice, as I usually do, and it paid off, as it often does.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Redhead swims at a pond in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Redhead swims at a pond in Darien in March 2014.

The pond at Spring Grove Cemetery in Darien is small but often fairly productive. It’s a good place to see Wood Ducks in the fall and spring. Hooded Mergansers are frequent visitors in winter when the water isn’t frozen over. Ring-necked Ducks are occasional visitors. And, of course, Canada Geese and Mallards are usually there.

But one day this week, not only were Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks all there, but a surprise visitor was there as well. Redheads are a beautiful medium-sized duck that are seen occasionally in New England. I’ve seen massive flocks of them in the Midwest, but only a handful of times have I seen them in New England. They are seen sometimes within huge flocks of scaup. But I’ve never seen one in New England at a pond as small as this one. It was interesting to see it among the mergansers and ring-neckeds.

This is a male Redhead. The female is much duller in color, mostly tannish brown.

In a post later this week I’ll let you know how the Redhead seemed to get along with the other ducks in the small pond.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Redhead seen in Darien in March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Redhead seen in Darien in March 2014.

Yes, more Hooded Merganser photos

Over the years I’ve taken tons of Hooded Merganser photos. I just love those little ducks and find them infinitely interesting.

So this weekend, what did I do? I took more Hooded Merganser photos, of course. About five males and four females were utilizing a small pool of unfrozen water on an otherwise frozen lake at Sellecks/Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn. The males were not displaying, but that time is coming soon. (A video I took last winter of their breeding display behavior is included at the bottom of this post.)

Here are the latest. (Remember, you can always send me your bird photos and I’ll include them on my “Reader Submitted Photos” page. Send me your photos at bozclark@earthlink.net.

Now for those hoodies:

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.

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

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

More photos below …

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Mallards, mergansers on frozen Norwalk River

iPhone photo by Chris Bosak Mallards rest on the ice as a small group of Hooded Mergansers swims in the background along the Norwalk River.

iPhone photo by Chris Bosak
Mallards rest on the ice as a small group of Hooded Mergansers swims in the background along the Norwalk River.

 

Not having my “real” camera with me this morning as I walked into work, I used my iPhone to capture this moment of Mallards resting on the ice near a small pool of unfrozen water on the Norwalk River. A small group of Hooded Mergansers swims in the open water. The rest of the Norwalk River is frozen, a somewhat rare occurrence.

Send me your bird and nature photos for my “reader submitted photos” page, which is updated often. Check it out here.