One of my least favorite components of bird names is the word “common,” because in some locations that species may indeed be uncommon, or even absent. However, for the duck known as the common merganser, the name fits, as they are frequently seen on our local bodies of water.
Waterfowl are a large group birds that include swans, geese and ducks. Waterfowl are well adapted to, well, water. They are often seen preening their feathers, spreading oil from the preen gland on their backside to help keep their feathers waterproof. They have webbed feet and are skilled swimmers and divers, but many will also roam onto land to graze on vegetation. Waterfowl have long necks and narrow, pointed wings. Some waterfowl are resident, but most are migratory. Mergansers are diving ducks that plunge underwater for extended periods to feed on aquatic plants and animals. The legs of divers are positioned far back on the body, which makes them excellent swimmers but awkward on land. They will also taxi along the water before taking off in flight. Some other diving ducks that you may see locally include redhead, ring-necked duck, lesser scaup and common goldeneye.
Common mergansers are year-round residents and are often mistaken for loons due to the black-and-white body pattern of the male. With ideal lighting conditions, the male’s head has a greenish iridescence, but most of the time it appears black. The female looks quite different, with a grayish body and a rusty head with a crest. Both have narrow red beaks with serrated edges and hooked tips to help catch slippery fish and other aquatic animals. Merganser bodies have a slender appearance and in flight look for rapid wingbeats and large white patches on the wings. While swimming their bodies cruise low in the water.
Common mergansers gather in small flocks and are found in lakes and rivers. They prefer rivers in mountainous forested areas and actually nest in tree cavities. Common mergansers are typically quiet, but on rare occasions you may hear them emit odd low-pitched grunts and clicks.
Water will be getting more ice free as the days get longer and warmer, so look for mergansers to start showing up on rivers and lakes. If you enjoy fishing note that mergansers specialize in catching fish, so their presence can indicate a good spot for angling.
Notable January reports below are from the Woodland Park yard area. For a full report, go to the Monthly Birds Blog at betterbirdwatching.com.
• Downy woodpecker: one on Jan. 22
• White-breasted nuthatch: typically seen daily, only one on Jan. 30.
• Dark-eyed junco: all five subspecies seen many times during snowstorms, pink-sided and slate-colored around most days, white-winged and Oregon around some of the time
• Evening grosbeak: a few on Jan. 17 and 20
• Pine siskin: a few around the last days of January
• Cassin’s finch: one on Jan. 23
Joe LaFleur studied wildlife biology and communications at Colorado State University and is the creator of “Better Birdwatching,” a DVD series on North American birds. Contact him with questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.