The Daily Bucket is a regular feature of the Backyard Science group. It is a place to note any observations you have made of the world around you. Snails, fish, insects, weather, meteorites, climate, birds and/or flowers. All are worthy additions to the bucket. Please let us know what is going on around you in a comment. Include, as close as is comfortable for you, where you are located.
April 15, 2013
Our quiet bays are a favorite wintering haven for many ducks, including mergansers. A few Common Mergansers or Hooded Mergansers will stop by now and then, but most often it's the Red-Breasted Mergansers who grace us, generally hanging about in small flocks. They paddle languidly but effectively over the shallow bottoms, looking for fish, diving without a splash, leaving the surface empty for awhile and then quietly resurfacing elsewhere. I've been keeping an eye through my telescope daily, all winter, checking for a new "yardbird" at the bay visible from my house, and usually my report is "Buffleheads and Red-Breasted Mergansers again...sigh". These often flock together, making it a varied group, since the RB Mergansers are quite a bit larger. But now spring has arrived, and all the winter ducks have become fewer, including my regulars. I know it won't be long before I'll be missing my Buffleheads and Red-Breasted Mergansers (.....sigh).
In winter, Red-Breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator
) all look pretty much alike, the eclipse males having much the same coloring as the females. Getting close enough, with zoom, it is sometimes possible for me to differentiate them. This group above (photographed in November) is mostly females, because of the two bands of white on the wings, and the whitish area in front of the eye, as best I can judge from the field guide descriptions.
On this April day, I was out walking on Aleck Bay, the quietest of the beaches near my house. The birds had a strange look to them, until I realized they were all napping, and with their heads tucked, their rakish crests were sticking straight up.
I watched them for a while. The males were garbed in their extravagant breeding plumage, and many appeared paired up with females, like this couple. The female was sleeping on a rock and the male, though apparently sleeping also, never drifted too far from her rock.
My attention was drawn by some splashing and weird noises down the beach. A group of males were showing off for some females, putting on quite a display. There were two kinds of noises, one a delicate tootle, the other a gruff beep. After watching them all closely, I realized it was the males making the light kazoo-sounding "tzoooowl" while the females occasionally responded with a deep "bleppp"....so much for my stereotyping feminine and masculine sounds. The displays were quite energetic. You can see some of their efforts.
One chased another off, and then back again.
The display involves dipping frontwise into the water, beak held high, butt up high. Both ends are evidently attractive. We certainly get a good look at their bright orange legs. Like most diving ducks, their legs are attached at the end of their body, which excellently suits them for propulsion in water. Standing on land is awkward; they are not as well balanced as the dabbling ducks, like mallards. I rarely see mergansers on the beach, but they often fish right near the shore.
Sometimes the females would call too.
Some of the field guides describe the "smoky eyes" as being a male feature, but others attribute that to either. Considering the behaviors and the sounds they were making, it seems more likely the rusty-headed individuals were females.
When they paired up, as these two were, swimming and fishing together by themselves, it looked clear they had chosen their mate for the season.
Red-Breasted Mergansers form their pair bonds in late winter or early spring and then make their way north to nest in Alaska or northern Canada. I will miss seeing them out in the bays, but these lovely ducks will be back next fall.
What's going on in your backyard? All reports are welcome in the Bucket.