It’s been my life’s dream to witness the fledging of young wood ducks from their tree cavity nest in response to their mother’s calls below – perhaps this will be the year! Adult wood ducks have recently returned to northern New England, having already formed mating pairs. They now proceed to perform a number of courtship displays which enable them to maintain this pair bond. The most common display involves the male’s turning the back of his head towards the female as he swims in front of her while holding his wings and tail high. Chin-lifting, feather-shaking, wing-preening, neck-stretching and bill-jerking are just some of the displays that occur during wood duck courtship.
Common mergansers can be seen year round in northern New England, but in the spring their numbers peak around the first week in April, due to the large number of birds that wintered further south and are migrating to Canadian nesting grounds. These birds are fish eaters, known to consume at least 50 species which they easily grasp with their bill due to the sharp projections along its edges. Egg-laying is still a couple of months away, but coveted tree cavities where they nest are being scoped out. (female common merganser on left, male on right)
On a cold, winter day, why would any bird choose to sit down on ice? While feathers are excellent insulators, the legs and feet of most birds lack this protective covering. Because of this, legs and feet are a major source of heat loss for birds. Physical adaptations to this loss of heat include constricted blood vessels in a bird’s feet, as well as the proximity of arteries and veins to each other which aids the transfer of heat. Birds exhibit behavioral adaptations as well, such as ducks and gulls standing on one leg and tucking the other among breast feathers, reducing by half the amount of unfeathered limb surface area exposed. By sitting down and covering both legs, even on ice, heat loss from limbs is minimized. If you observe closely, you will see many of the ground-feeding finches such as sparrows and redpolls also occasionally drop down and cover their legs and feet with their breast feathers for a few seconds.
Common Mergansers are primarily fish-eating ducks. Young mergansers require over half a pound of food per day during their first summer, and often supplement their fish diet with insects, mollusks, crustaceans, worms, frogs, small mammals, birds and plants. The pictured immature Common Merganser had just downed a crayfish when it spotted a frog which it succeeded in catching and eventually swallowing.
Although named for the chestnut band, or ring, around its neck (barely discernible to most eyes) this diving duck does have a distinct white ring around its bill. Vermont and New Hampshire are on the southern edge of the ring-necked duck’s breeding range, so while they do breed here occasionally, we’re much more apt to see them during March and April, when they are migrating further north, and again in October and November when they’re headed to southern U.S. and central America to spend the winter. (male on left, female on right in photograph)
A few hooded mergansers, small fish-,insect- and crayfish-eating ducks of wooded ponds, can be found year round in northern New England, but their numbers swell in March and April, when many migrant birds return to breed, and others stop over on their way further north. Standing dead trees, or snags, provide nesting cavities for these beautiful, “hammerhead” crested ducks. (Male hooded merganser on left and female on right in photograph.)
As dusk approached, a Redhead (Aythya americana) drake repeatedly disappeared under water, coming up with a mouthful of aquatic vegetation each time it dove. Suddenly an agitated Crow started cawing nonstop. Soon thereafter a Bald Eagle soared overhead, scanning the open water for its next meal. The Redhead immediately dove, and wasn’t seen again for several minutes. Knowing it couldn’t hold its breath for that period of time, I began looking more carefully for where it had surfaced. Eventually I found it seeking shelter from above, tucked under a snag which had fallen into the pond.
On a recent visit to Peak’s Island, Maine, I observed many common eiders (the largest ducks in the Northern Hemisphere) bobbing in the ocean just off the rocky coast. Every so often one would dive and retrieve a mussel, crab or sea urchin which it would then consume. At low tide, both drakes and female eiders would settle on the seaweed-covered rocks, where the drakes’ plumage (photo) seemed to blend perfectly.