If this were a mere photography blog, then I would not dare to post the images shown below. But, since Naturespeak is better described as a “photo-enhanced” nature blog – containing verbal tales, of varying quality, about natural events and illustrated by images, also of varying quality – I can proceed without any apology. It is a harsh reality of nature that her events do not always occur on bluebird days. Even my bluebird sightings are not always on bluebird days! So, I shoot what I see using the camera that I have at the time allowed. The rest I record with my eyes and try to translate through my keyboard.
While undertaking an early morning trip (in the company of one of my sons) to check on the status of a local Osprey nest, we encountered a gang of Red-breasted Mergansers swimming in the vicinity of the bridge over Stony Creek. I quickly turned the car around in order to get a better look at these birds. The ospreys would have to wait. Ospreys are incredible beasts and all, but quite frankly, I see them all the time. These mergansers are a much scarcer commodity. As migrants, they only pass through our region while in transit to & from their North Country breeding grounds. Unlike their Common Merganser friends, Red-breasted Mergansers rarely, if ever, overwinter. Not only are they spectacular looking waterfowl, but these particular early morning fowl were engaging in their equally impressive courtship ritual. The only problem was that the day was gray and overcast with intermittent showers.
First, a description of the bird itself. I did manage to snap off a decent image of a set of male and female birds (see above), but the light does them an injustice (you know how certain pictures make you look fat or pale or old or a combination of the three). The females are quite pale to begin with. They have a reddish-brown head, a white neck, and a grayish body. They blend in quite well – especially when framed by the rushing gray-green waters of a rain-choked creek.
In typical waterfowl fashion, the male birds are brightly patterned with glossy green heads, white necks, rust-colored breasts, and starkly contrasting black and white back and side patterns. The male’s head sports a hairy two-pointed crown. Both sexes have long slender bills equipped with pseudo teeth, but the male’s version is brilliantly shaded a bright red. The male’s feet are also red in color. The reason for all this male brightness is explained during the course of their courtship ritual.
There were six birds in the Stony Creek flotilla, being three nicely matched salt & pepper pairs of males and females. Red-breasted Mergansers start their pair bonding before leaving their coastal wintering grounds and they work on maintaining it all the way up. They do so with a series of ritualized movements. You could call it a dance but, in this case, it is more like a synchronized swimming routine. One of the males in this six-pack was in a swim danc’n mood on this morning. Take a look at this video sequence and you’ll definitely pick out the individual I am referring to (see here).
This routine is hard-wired. From the female’s perspective there are no points for creativity. She demands of the male a perfect repetition of the time-honored style with no variation on the theme. Take a look at the still shots below (from the R.B. Merg’s Style Handbook) and I’ll break it down for you.
The dance begins with a dramatic upward extension of his neck and head. He lifts his breast out of the water and points that bright reddish bill at a high angle like some Art deco hood ornament. He lowers his crown and accentuates the neck sweep by starting it with the bill tip pointing straight down (see first and second images above). Next, keeping his head in position, he opens his mouth and stiffly rocks forward until his breast and lower neck are completely submerged (see third and forth images below). As part of the effort to attain this pose, he kicks up a backwards spray of water with his feet. Rump high in the air, tail down, and red feet exposed, he completes his act and settles back into normal swimming mode.
It’s all over in a few moments, but it is clear that over the course of each sequence the bird made the best of all his color traits. If you have it – flaunt it! You’ll note that this male performed the move twice over the short time of the video. He had completed a dozen more moves before shooting and no doubt continued on as the current took them out of view down the creek.
There is a sound associated with the routine, but it is a close personal type of noise. We could not hear it from the distance we observed this fandango (a very loud cardinal was hogging all the auditory space). According to the literature, however, the male emits a soft “dorr dorr” call as he turns his head slightly toward the object of his affection.
As for the female’s part of the interaction, I can definitely say that she was acting frisky. Dunking in and out of the water, she seemed to echo his enthusiasm. I certainly felt his enthusiasm and, by reading this mid-quality description and viewing these low-quality images, I trust you can to?