Birds of Chignik Lake: Red-breasted Merganser – Not Just Flashy. Fast!

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
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
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, 2010Common in Spring, Summer and Fall; Rare in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

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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.