Sometimes, a bird is a kind of presence in a place, completing the scene, so to speak.
That’s what happened on this year’s canoe outing on Montana’s Upper Missouri River. The bird presence there is the common merganser.
It’s been that way whenever I’ve floated the Upper Missouri.
The merganser is part of the experience.
The birds are usually in family groups, a female bird with a dozen young. Sometimes, families get together, and groups of 50 or more mergansers will be strung out along the riverbank. They slip into the water as the canoes approach and swim away.
Perhaps I am drawn to mergansers because they don’t occur in our area. They did at one time. Robert Stewart makes this comment about the common merganser in his book, “Breeding Birds of North Dakota”:
“Apparently, breeding populations have been completely extirpated from the state.”
Stewart mentions nesting records at Devils Lake and in the Turtle Mountains. These would meet the merganser’s habitat preferences for big water with timber.
Another such area is North Dakota’s portion of the Missouri, especially the area between the reservoirs.
Mergansers have been reported nesting there, near Cross Ranch State Park.
So, it’s a bird worth watching for in North Dakota.
Migrating mergansers are fairly common on big water, including Devils Lake, so this would be the time of year to expect seeing them.
The common merganser is a good-sized bird — the largest North American duck. It typically rides low in the water, however, and so it appears smaller than it really is. A merganser in flight, on the other hand, appears to be large and pointed, rather like a projectile. Flight is fast — but mergansers aren’t eager fliers. My experience is that they prefer to swim or dive to reach safety rather than immediately take flight, as most ducks do.
Mergansers are ducks, but they are specialized. They are fish eaters. That means they are divers rather than dabblers. Their bills are serrated, the better to grip a slippery fish. This has earned them the nickname “sawbills.” The mergansers have crests, too, sometimes quite prominent crests.
The common merganser occurs throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In Britain, it is usually called “goosander.”
The word merganser is descriptive. It comes from two Latin words, mergere, which means to dive, and anser, which means goose.
So, merganser is “diving goose.”
The common merganser is a somewhat understated bird.
Males have glossy green heads and gray or black on the back with white breasts. They are crested, but usually the crest is held close to the head. This makes the head look big but not pointy.
Females have reddish-brown heads and more conspicuous crests.
Two other mergansers occur in North Dakota.
The red-breasted merganser isn’t known to nest here. It’s a seagoing duck for the most part, although it does show up on brackish waters inland.
It’s a smaller bird than the common merganser, and there is a suggestion of red on the breast.
The hooded merganser, a close relative but of another scientific genus, is relatively common in the state—in suitable habitat.
For hooded mergansers, suitable habitat is wooded lakes with hollow trees for nesting.
Devils Lake provides this in abundance, and the hooded merganser is a fixture of our bird walks at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve. These are held in early May every year.
The hooded merganser is a spectacular bird with a rounded crest. Displaying males raise the crest, revealing a large patch of white bordered in black.
This year’s Upper Missouri River trip yielded excellent bird sightings. One morning, we watched a kingfisher hovering. It’s amazing that so large a bird can hold itself almost in place, watching the water. The hover often is followed by a plunge into the water. Usually, the kingfisher emerges with lunch, a small fish.
We were serenaded by great horned owls at night, including a chorus during the most spectacular display of northern lights I have seen in many years, made more impressive because the landscape is utterly without manmade illumination.
The Upper Missouri is good raptor country, too, and we saw osprey, bald and golden eagles, prairie falcons and several species of hawks.
This week, it’s back to the garden. The barn swallows, I noticed, departed while I was away, and the blackbirds replaced them on the overhead wires.