I saw eleven Hooded Mergansers glide across the pond at Amnicola Marsh. I have loved the grace and delicate beauty of this particular species since I first saw seven cross Jemima Pond on Cape Cod some thirty years ago. The males seem to lift their white crests with each nod of the head in their gentle swimming strokes.
Although the Hooded Merganser is a duck, its habits are quite different from the more familiar Mallard Duck and its close relatives such as Gadwall and Blue-winged Teal. These are puddle ducks. They tip up and grab water plants for their dinner with wide spatula like beaks.
The Hooded Merganser, along with such relatives as the Common Merganser and Red-breasted Merganser, is a fish eater. Its long narrow beak has a row of sharp narrow teeth fro grasping its prey. It body is small and built for speed. In addition to the white crest on the head, the males have a white breast and two black bars on each side, just in front of the wings. The flanks are a rich brown color with a hint of red and the wings and back are dark, nearly black, sometimes with white stripes.
Female mergansers are gray, with the upper parts darker and lower parts lighter. The belly is white. Their crest is generally described as brown, but I see it as a dull red. The crest can be lowered and raised, depending on the bird’s mood, and males are said to raise their white crest to attract the female’s attention. Apparently this strategy is fairly successful. Observers have recorded sightings of female mergansers followed by as many as 18 ducklings while swimming in wooded coves. I have never encountered commentary as to what use female mergansers make of their red crests.
Like the equally lovely Wood Duck, mergansers nest in hollow trees or in boxes which humans construct specifically for that purpose. The young bird’s first experience is free fall from a height. The Wood Duck’s young bounce when they land. This is likely true of Hooded Mergansers as well. The elasticity of the body which allows a young bird to bounce reduces the likelihood of injury on landing.
On this day, a few coots and mallards accompanied the Hooded Mergansers. They paddled about the shallows as a heron crossed the pond. Its stately wing beats kept it just above the surface.
I found Chickamauga Dam clouded in dense fog. I could barely make out the concrete structure and the river. I saw no birds at all. The heron rookery just off Amnicola Highway abandoned. The birds were not yet ready to resume nest building. A flock of Gadwall navigated the stream. Though I have heard some birders refer to Gadwall as nondescript, the dark rump stands out against any background. The white on the trailing edge of the wing is not always visible, but it is a sure sign of this species.
Ice in winter home
No water plants or fish to eat, water
Birds move further south
Just as T.S. Elliot saw the world end, “not with a bang, but a whimper,” I saw the year begin with only a few species of birds. I had returned to Amnicola Marsh hoping to see the 35 Hooded Mergansers I had seen on this same day, a year ago. This year followed a different course, with many species visible in smaller numbers early on. The small ponds and marshes froze over in January, and likely the normal winter residents moved further south.