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Thanksgiving Visitors


2017/12/06




By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

At Thanksgiving, the only fowl on most people’s minds is turkey. But at our farm, we have special visitors around Thanksgiving every year. They usually come a few days before the holiday and stay about a week or little more on the larger pond on our property. These special guests are Hooded Mergansers, stopping for a respite on their annual migration.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is an excellent resource for finding information about any bird species. Their website describes Hooded Mergansers as “extravagantly crested little ducks.” Adult males have “sharp black and white patterns set off by distinctive elegance from their cinnamon crest. Mergansers are fairly common on small ponds and rivers, where they dive for fish, crayfish, and other food, seizing it in their thin, serrated bills. They nest in tree cavities…”

Living in the mid-south near the Mississippi Flyway is an ideal location for seeing a wide variety of birds. The Audubon Society has found that “more than 325 species make the round-trip each year along the Mississippi Flyway, from their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States to their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico, and in Central and South America.”

Audubon reports that “Mergansers are the only ducks that specialize in eating fish. They forage by diving and swimming underwater. They apparently find their food by sight and their eyes are adapted for good underwater vision. The Hooded is the smallest of the merganser species and lives around wooded ponds. They are mostly a short-distant migrant and some southerly breeders may be permanent residents. Migration is relatively late in fall and early in spring.” The Audubon migration map shows them as “all seasons” residents of the mid-south. But my experience tells me that they are short season residents at my farm.

I have found that they are shy ducks and will fly away at the slightest inkling of a human presence. I have to be very careful when approaching the pond to try to get photos of them, and have yet to be successful at getting any close-up shots. I have to hide behind any and all obstacles in their view, and still it’s easy to scare them away.

There are also herons living on the ponds on our farm – great blue and a particular smaller heron (perhaps a green heron?) that perches in the trees around the pond. This heron serves as “look out” and sounds the “human alarm,” thus alerting the Mergansers to fly away, before I can get close enough for even a long-distance photo!

Still, it is a privilege to host these delightful ducks and watch their graceful swimming on one of our farm ponds, and the neighbor’s pond when they flee from my photographic attempts. It is important to continue to provide at least a temporary habitat for these climate endangered ducks.

Read more about them at: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/hooded-merganserand https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Hooded_Merganser/id#

We have noted that we can get closer to them before the alarm sounds if on horseback. This may be because the ducks may be used to horses or perhaps the human on horseback does not look, move, or smell like the predator human on foot. This phenomenon seems to hold true for the observation of a lot of wildlife, and is one more reason to occasionally get outside the ring to ride. 

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