With a crest reminiscent of peacock herl and a bright red orange bill meant for the business of catching fish, Red-breasted Mergansers are both stunningly handsome and adapted for success in the Chignik Drainage. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2016)
While there is some dispute as to the actual speed it can attain, it is said that the Red-breasted Merganser is the world’s fastest bird in level flight. That means that at speeds of somewhere in the vicinity of 80 miles per hour, while it can’t match a diving Peregrine Falcon’s break-neck 240 mph, it could outrun the predator in a flight parallel to land or water.
In winter and spring, it’s not unusual to see Red-breasted drakes associating with Common Mergansers. Note the Common’s slightly more stout bill, her light colored chest and distinctive white chin. Commons are also somewhat larger and bulkier looking than Red-breasteds. (Chignik Lake, December 2016)
As is the case with their Common cousins, Red-breasteds generally aren’t high on hunters’ lists. Mergansers are sea ducks, most of which are not esteemed as table fare. Though I must say as a fly-tier, the drake’s plumage is tempting. Fortunately there are synthetic materials that obviate the need to take one of these beautiful ducks merely for its feathers.
Mergansers are well-known for cooperative feeding strategies – behavior they learn as chicks while hunting with their mother. Although immature birds and females look a lot like immature and female Commons, note A) the very thin bill which can appear to be upturned, B) dark chest and C) absence or near absence of white on the chin. (Chignik Lake, January 14, 2018)
Unlike Common Mergansers, Red-breasteds don’t nest in cavities. They nest on the ground near water. Thus, they are known to breed on the largely treeless Alaska Peninsula.
A Red-breasted drake (forward most) mixes in with a group of Common Mergansers on a fishing expedition. Common Goldeneyes often join these groups. (Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017)
This drake, just coming up with a stickleback, was working an ice edge along with a female Common Merganser and a Common Goldeneye as another day on Chignik Lake came to a close. (December 2016)
Red-breasted Merganser Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Mergus: from Latin for an unspecified waterbird
serrator: Latin serra = saw
Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common
David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common
Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Common in Spring, Summer and Fall; Rare in Winter
Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present
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*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake
© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.
Again, so interesting. What a massive range the common merganser has over the entire North American continent. Loving your stories!
These large ranges illustrate the importance of protecting and enhancing habitat everywhere. There are a few places where ducks (and other birds) might seasonal gather in large numbers. At other times of the year, they tend to be widely dispersed.