The distinctive duck that loves our winter coast
By Susan Campbell
A day at the beach is not when one expects to see ducks. However, in the winter months it is not unusual to see at least one species of waterfowl paddling around just beyond the breakers. A large duck, the red-breasted merganser is not hard to find if you scan the water any day from mid-October through early March. In fact, thousands of these birds spend the cooler months along our coast every year. Spend a few hours ocean-watching and you are likely to see not only resting birds on the water but also flocks of red-breasteds passing by as they move between feeding areas.
Red-breasteds are one of three species of merganser that occur in North Carolina at some point during the year. Common mergansers, which are actually far less numerous, are more likely inland. Hooded mergansers, the smallest of the three, are not often found in saltwater either. Mergansers are all piscivorous divers that have long, thin bills lined with many sharp teeth that are ideal for grabbing fast-moving, slippery prey. This group of waterfowl also have strong legs that are situated far back on the body, enabling them to dive quickly and easily when they spot schools of small fish, crustaceans or insect larvae.
Male and female red-breasteds look very different during the breeding season. But when males arrive here they are still sporting dull, eclipse plumage. For the most part they look like females. Both have a red bill, red legs and feet, and a shaggy double crest of long brown feathers. The back, rump and flanks are a dull gray, which is excellent camouflage against the water. In flight, there are flashes of white from the belly plumage in addition to white in the wing. Red-breasted mergansers have long, tapered wings that are pale underneath. But distinct patches of white feathers are noticeable on the wing’s dorsal surface. Females have a patch on top of the trailing edge of the wing very close to the body. But the white on top of a male’s wing will flash much more brightly, since it extends the full width. The wing pattern does not change over the course of the year.
In November it will become more obvious which birds are males. Although it may seem early, they, like all waterfowl, will acquire fresh new breeding plumage. They will replace the dull body plumage that they have worn since breeding ended in early July. Their heads will become an iridescent green, and their eyes will become bright red. And it is then that they develop their namesake reddish-brown breast that includes bold black speckling. With the transformation complete, they can begin the task of acquiring a mate they will travel back north with come spring.
Over the winter months, male red-breasteds seek out potential mates. Courtship in mergansers involves elaborate posturing and head-shaking by males who repeatedly circle the object of their affection. Males swim around receptive females trying to out-do one another with repeated head tilts and bowing. It is a very lucky thing to witness this dance. If you keep an eye out as you walk the beach this winter, you may spot these wonderful creatures and be treated to quite a show!
Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos at firstname.lastname@example.org.