By day – Notes on nature: the crested merganser makes the shaggy coat spectacular

Meet the crested merganser, a strikingly beautiful diving duck with a “shaggy” crested head that regularly visits our Connecticut shores in late fall and winter.

“It is, like all species of its tribe, a most expert diver,” John James Audubon wrote of the crested merganser in 1833, adding, “and after being shot with a flintlock gun (it) s usually escapes by disappearing before the shot reaches where it was.

The “tribe” Audubon refers to are the mergansers, a family of diving ducks that have serrated, spike-like beaks that act like teeth, helping them grasp their prey: small, slippery fish. They include the common merganser, the hooded merganser and the crested merganser. All three visit Connecticut.

Interesting facts :

• Mergansers are one of the fastest flying ducks, recording up to 81 miles per hour. To catch the air, however, these elegant ducks need a head start. Their legs are positioned close to their rear, making it difficult to walk on land, but they are an asset when diving, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website,

• The same website notes that red mergansers should eat 15-20 small fish per day. This means that these active birds need to dive underwater 250-300 times a day or feed for 4-5 hours to meet their daily energy needs.

What’s also fun with these birds is that you don’t need a powerful spotting scope to observe them. Mergansers hunt their prey in shallow water, close to shore, so you can often observe them up close without additional equipment.

In fact, off the tip of the borough of Stonington, where the water is clean and clear, I have often observed red mergansers, submerged, using their legs to propel themselves and squeeze through the water until at the waist for a minute or more. They are very agile under water.

Red mergansers are also very attractive.

Male Red-breasted Mergansers, for example, sport a dark green head, with a shaggy crested hairdo, red beak and eyes, a nice white collar around their necks, and an attractive rust-colored chest.

Female Red-breasted Mergansers sport more muted colors, but they still have that fun, shaggy hairstyle.

There’s a good reason why female birds don’t wear showy colors. When they’re sitting on a nest, incubating eggs, the last thing they want to do is stand out from predators. Instead, they want to become almost invisible and blend into the environment with very bland colors.

Enjoy bird watching!

Corrections and additions: In a recent column on praying mantises, I did not mention that there are two non-native praying mantises that surpass our native Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) for food sources, and their egg sacs must not be ordered through supply houses. These are the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) and the European mantis (Mantis religiosa).

Bill Hobbs lives in Stonington and is an avid bird watcher. He can be reached for comments at [email protected]

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