Over the summer the Whitemud Creek has been quiet when it comes to waterfowl. Maybe it is the constant strong current but it seems that most water fowl prefer more still water for their day to day business. The other day, however, as we were down buy the creek harvesting rose hips we came across half a dozen Common Mergansers hanging out on the banks for the creek. I am not sure what brought them there, but it was a welcomed sight. After a while sitting on the shoreline they went into the creek and started going back and forth, sort-of aimlessly. As mergansers migrate south in the fall, one possibility is that they are starting to get together to prepare for their migration to their overwintering habitats.
So here is a bit of a stumper. I came across this waterfowl sitting on a log in the creek the other day. It was alone and the question that immediately came to my mind was “What is it?”. My hunch is that it was an immature Common Merganser, given the spiky hairdo, white belly, overall grey with a hint of reddish-brown on the head. What makes me second guess myself, however, is the bill and the legs. Both these appendages are red to brownish-red in Common Merganser. On this individual, however, the colours were nowhere close to that. On the other hand though, the bill and leg colours are brightest on adult males and are progressively duller the younger the individual is. Comparing this individual to other Common Mergansers I have seen and online images online + cross referencing with reported sightings at this location in eBird does not leave many other options available. It is interesting that while one typically relies on unique species specific field marks when identifying birds, birds can be as variable in appearance as humans and sometimes you come across individuals that only partially fit the search image. It is in situations like this that being able to take a picture of the birds is invaluable, particularly afterwards when you start questioning your observation. While today’s picture may not stand up to the scrutiny of pixel peepers it does serve its intended purpose, to document an individual and aid in its identification and, lets face it, being shot at the 35 mm equivalent of 1008 mm there are few other camera set ups that could pull this of. Yes you could probably shoot it at 600 mm on a full frame camera and then crop in post-processing and end up with an image with a higher resolution…, or you could get a Nikon P1000 and take the cash you save and go on a photo safari to <name of your choice of a far away exotic location>. For me it is a easy choice, travel always trumps hardware. Let’s put it this way. When you are old and gnarly reminiscing about your birding heydays, what’s will you remember? Will you fondly remember you top of the line equipment and massive 600 mm optics? Or will you remember that epic birding trip you did with you family to <name of your choice of a far away exotic location> where you scored n lifers (where n is a very large number) and created memories to last a lifetime? Nuff said!
Found this lovely Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) down at the Whitemud Creek yesterday morning. There its was, just chilling on a log with its funky hairdo…, er, “featherdo”? If you look closely at the picture you can see the serrated edge of the bill. Mergansers eat fish so this helps them grip their prey. Sometimes they are referred to as sawbills. The famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon referred to these as Buff-breasted Merganser and Goosander in his 1827 book The Birds of North America. This particular merganser appeared to be alone and is likely either a non-breeding male or a female. Once males reach their breeding age (2 years) their appearance changes a black head and white body. Nonbreeding males and females are tricker to tell apart. None of the information online provided any clues as how to tell them apart. If in doubt, consult your Sibley! According to Sibley, adult nonbreeding males have a white stripe on their wing, which can clearly be seen in this picture. So there you have it folks, it’s a lonesome bachelor. Just a bit downstream there were several merganser couples swimming around romantically in the murky water. I guess this fella either did not get lucky this year or is not ready to commit, not that male merganser commit much as they do not help the female to care for the eggs or young.