The Third Merganser

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

April 2, 2012

In late March and into April, water birds that spent the winter to the south pass over head, heading for their nesting grounds to the north.  Sometimes bad weather forces them to lay over at our local lake. Having already discussed the two mergansers that breed in Pennsylvania, the Common and the Hooded, it is time to mention The Third Merganser, the Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator).[1]

The Red-breasted Merganser is more of a sea duck, and I usually just see them loafing far out on the lake, sleeping birds with bad haircuts.

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator) loafing

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator) loafing

They don’t lay over long, and they prefer to stay right out in the center of the lake, but on a couple of occasions, I have been fortunate enough to be able to photograph one close to the shore.

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male

In most lights, the male’s head looks almost black.

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male

In just the right light, the male’s head shows a splendid irridescent green, a popular color among ducks (Mallards, Shovelers, Common Mergansers).

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male showing irridescense.

Not all of the males show up fully attired for their nuptials.

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male in molt

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male incomplete molt

The female is more humbly colored, in the general mode of ducks.

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), female

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), female

They are primarily fish eaters. They dive often and, therefore, they spend a lot of time preening.

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male preening

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), male preening

They spend the winter south of here in the large estuaries of the Atlantic Coast. The Red-breasted Merganser breeds in boreal forests and up into the tundra. Unlike the Hooded and Common, it is not a cavity nester, but nests on the ground, often under low-hanging conifer boughs or other shrubbery and rocks. There are not a lot of cavities up north, so I guess that is as close as they can find.

These birds form their pair bonds during spring migration, and the birds that drop in to the lake are often paired up. Polygamy is fairly common, but mostly I observe pairs.

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  1. When I grow up, I may write a mystery thriller novel called The Third Merganser—catchy title, no? []

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