The local creeks are losing their coverings of ice as winter loses its solid grip on the landscape. Wildlife quickly takes advantage of the open water and we often observe new animal activity along these waterways. In February and March, this brings in the mergansers!
I observed and photographed several groups of mergansers in the Red Clay Creek recently, along Route 82 just upstream from Ashland Nature Center. Good places to look for them are in the slow, deep stretches of water above the dams at Sharpless Road and the end of Snuff Mill Road.
Mergansers are a tribe of ducks that specialize in eating fish. The Red Clay Creek and other streams in the Piedmont region are home to a diverse array of native fish that appeal to fish-eaters like mergansers. Chubs, dace, darters, and minnows of many varieties may be found in the waters. The fast-swimming mergansers chase the fish underwater, sometimes teaming up to corral the fish and attack from different directions. The thin, serrated beak of the merganser allows it to grasp the slippery fish before it is turned and swallowed head first down the throat of the hungry duck.
The drake Hooded Merganser’s piercing yellow eyes stare out from a black head accented with a large wedge of white. The chest is white with a wedge of black, making for a stark contrast of coloration. When excited and in the presence of females, the drake raises his crest fully in a wide fan shape.
Hen Hooded Mergansers have a beautiful cinnamon-colored crest that when raised looks like a punk rocker’s mohawk hair. In just a couple of months, these hens will be seeking out nesting cavities (hollows in trees) where they will lay their eggs. Hooded Mergansers have been documented nesting a few times in Delaware, but generally they are a species that breeds further north in the Northeast and Canada.
There is one other species of merganser that occurs in Delaware: the Red-breasted Merganser . This species occurs in winter along Delaware’s coastal areas, typically preferring salt and brackish water.
If you’d like to see all three species of mergansers and at least 25 species of waterfowl in one day, join us for the Delaware Duck Day program on Sunday, March 13. We’ll travel the state in search of web-footed birds and enjoy the great diversity of ducks, geese, and swans that winter in the First State.