Monday, December 26, 2011 - Just one year ago.
Search “Hooded Mergansers” for photos of the species herein described:
A splendid movement of ducks greeted me at the first opening, just a few feet in from the parking lot. I saw a few Mallards and Hooded Mergansers just offshore, and jumped to the top of a rock to focus my binoculars on a nearby drake Hooded Merganser. A rush of wings and water drew my attention to the right as a mixed flock moved out of the marshy growth along the shore. They half flew and half swam to the open water just a few feet away.
A spectacular vision of Hooded Mergansers appeared to me at Amnicola Marsh, among the smokestacks and asphalt just off Chattanooga's Amnicola Highway. This industrial zone saw the onslaught of development as trees gave way to bricks and concrete year after year, but Amnicola Marsh remained a haven for waterfowl as an area too wet for development and too large to drain. It eventually received some protection for the State of Tennessee. Today, a more enlightened local government has introduced small parks, and a pedestrian walkway and bike path stretching from downtown Chattanooga, outward to Chickamauga Dam on the Tennessee River.
This Riverwalk is valuable green space for recreation, and habitat for wildlife, all on a strip of land not far from the banks of the river. Visitors can hike, bike, and view the herons that appear statue-like as they line the shore. In the appropriate season, one can see Osprey nesting on the railroad overpass near the dam. Occasionally an Osprey will grab a fish before the eyes of startled visitors.
Despite the spectacular dives by Osprey at Chickamauga Dam and the Great Blue Heron rookeries at various locations along the river, Amnicola Marsh has become my favorite Riverwalk location for “birding.” The sight of thirty-five Hooded Mergansers at the Marsh on this day was particularly lovely.
The reddish swept-back feathers on the heads of the hens, and the white crests edged with just a bit of black on the drakes, bestowed beauty to rival any sunset. The pale red on the flanks and the white bands on the tails of both male and female ducks give a grace note to set off the white chests of the males, interrupted by two contrasting black bands. Their beauty was unmatched by other birds I saw that day.
Their heads nodded with each forward movement. The beaks were fine and delicate, though clearly designed for fish. These are not the spatulate bills of Mallards and Northern Shovelers, used to gather aquatic plants.
I had never before seen more than seven or eight Hooded Mergansers at one time. These thirty-five, far closer than I had ever previously viewed the species, in the midst of the industrial degradation and traffic noise of Amnicola Highway, demonstrated that the marsh still thrives, though much reduced in size. In summer, lotus plants bloom and lift their seed pods to the nourishing sun just a few feet from the concrete trail used by passing cyclists.
On this winter day, American Coots patrolled the marsh. Mallards and Northern Shovelers joined them and the ever present Canada Geese. A flock of wintering American Robins moved through the trees surrounding the marsh, as a lone Great Blue Heron stood sentry, squawked, and crossed the pond at my approach.
I revisited the marsh on Tuesday and Wednesday of that week and saw the American Robins, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, American Coots, and the Great Blue Heron, but not even one Hooded Merganser. I believed the spectacle was a gift not soon repeated. I thought of them and remembered a similar day at Prime Hook Refuge in Delaware, when I caught the Snow Goose migration. It appeared as though a gigantic down pillow had been split open and rained white feathers across the inlet.
I stood for a few minutes on the marsh as it might have been before dams and locks kept the Tennessee River navigable year round and redirected flood waters away from vulnerable homes and businesses. The living tide of geese and ducks flowed through this urban country just as the Sandhill Cranes flow to nearby Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge and on south to Okefenokee, migrating to winter food sources and back to summer breeding grounds.