2014 – 4 Red-breasted Merganser

Three species of mergansers are here. Red-breasted, hooded and common mergansers all spend winters and springs here, but they nest much farther north beside freshwater rivers and ponds.

These birds are divers. With legs far back on their bodies and large paddles for feet, they dive and fly underwater in search of fish and other small critters. Loons, goldeneyes and scoters are local birds that are also divers. To stay down easier, they usually have heavier bodies, shorter wings and fly with fast wingbeats – but in able to get air born, they run over the water to take off – a sure sign of a diving duck.

Dabbling ducks, on the other hand, have their legs more centrally placed and sport smaller feet. Dabblers find shallow water and rotate or upend themselves to find a meal. Mallards, teal, wigeon and all the geese and swans are like this too. Being lighter with larger wings, dabblers can take off simply by rising straight up, a good solution to the confines of a marsh if you need to leave in a hurry.

So, shallow ponds, marshes and narrow confines – dabblers. Bays, rivers and open water – divers. And some of these birds can manage in both areas – just to confuse you. So this, fellow naturalists, is an introduction to figuring out what that dark-headed thin-billed duck is.

Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com

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