Red-breasted merganser

Perfectly reflected in mirror-like, calm autumn waters is this male red-breasted merganser during fall migration. This species is among the fastest of all flying ducks being clocked at speeds up to 81 miles per hour. To get airborne, they need a running start. Their legs are positioned near the rear making it difficult for them to walk on land, but an asset when diving for fish, their favorite food.

Old Man Winter froze many of our northern lakes early this year forcing migrating waterfowl to head south in search of open water where they can rest and refuel. Thus, waterfowl viewing and hunting seasons were short in northern Wisconsin during this fall’s migration. Waterfowl moving through the area included the red-breasted merganser that most people only see during spring and fall migrations.

People who live around or visit our Wisconsin Great Lakes may also see them where they nest and sometimes hang out. They are concentrated around the Bayfield peninsula and Apostle Islands along Lake Superior and the Door County peninsula and associated islands along the shores of Lake Michigan. When not nesting and migrating, they almost exclusively are found around marine environments.

Red-breasted merganser nests are not easy to locate because they prefer sites of overhanging vegetation or under dead logs, deadfalls, and piles of driftwood. Nests along the mainland are easily preyed upon by a variety of predators including coyotes, foxes, opossums, and fox snakes. The increase in cormorants who nest and roost in trees above merganser nests has also taken a toll on mergansers when their excrement burns and kills vegetation covering merganser nests.

Ducks are best defined by their bills. Mergansers are least ducklike of all ducks once you look at their bills. Red-breasted mergansers, along with other mergansers, have long, forceps-shaped, serrated bills superbly adapted for catching fish on the surface of the water or while diving for them.

Nature Notes

We have had very few birds, except for some resident birds, visiting our feeders this fall. Even squirrels around feeders seem in short supply. We have heard the same from other feeder watchers in the area. We are not sure why that is, but it may be because there are plenty of natural foods available in field and forest. There is a huge conifer cone crop here and in the boreal forest to our north and northeast. In addition, berry, oak, ash, birch, alder, and maple trees have all produced abundant seed crops here and in the northeast. Ron Pittaway, who predicts winter finch movements, says this winter won’t likely be a good flight year for winter finches in the East because most winter finches will stay put in the north due to abundant food crops there. To see Ron Pittaway’s full 2019-2020 winter finch forecast visit:

According to Wisconsin DNR Conservation Biologist Ryan Brady, “the bird of the week was the tundra swan, an iconic species known for reaching the state just ahead of ice up. Formerly known as whistling swan, they are often heard before seen, their higher-pitched calls offering the best cue for distinguishing them from the increasingly common trumpeter swan. Flocks even vocalize while migrating overhead at night, providing one of nature’s finest audio experiences.” So, stay tuned into our skies for the calls of tundra swans in coming days.

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