Thu Mar 2023

Mergs Near Shore

The peppy, little Hooded Mergansers have been visiting in their usual large numbers, this fall, on their way to warmer parts of the United States. They come in small flocks, one, two or three dozen at a time. In contrast to past years, though, they don’t stay very long.

The Bluegills were a major attraction for them. Alas, these small sunfish fell victim to a massive die-off last March. They should start to recover in the spring, when they spawn, but it will be a few years before they return to anywhere near their former numbers. In the meantime, the visiting “mergs” must rely on aquatic insects and small crustaceans they find by diving.

Occasionally a few of these diminutive ducks come close enough to shore for me to photograph. Among those that venture near, the males, or “drakes,” often outnumber the females, or “hens.” Such was the case on this day, so I got no shots of the hens. The latter are less flashy than the drakes, but elegant in their own right, sporting a frosted cinnamon crest (visible here).

In the second frame, the top drake appears in full breeding plumage, but with his crest lowered. The bottom drake is in transition from the dull eclipse feathers that he wore for several months during late summer and early fall, to the flashy breeding plumage he will need to attract a mate this winter.

Alternatively, the latter could be a young drake, growing his adult plumage for the first time. Both juvenile males and males in eclipse have a dull, black, brown and white plumage similar to that of the females, although males in eclipse retain their bright, yellow eyes (visible in frame one).

The drakes’ morphing, erectile crest is on display in frame three. It is used to attract females, we’re told. Does it also serve to signal emotions or warnings to others in the group? I’ve seen the hens “flash” their crests, raising and lowering them quickly. Are they signalling?