Mergansers Steal the Show

3 Merganser babies
Red-breasted Merganser, San Lorenzo River, between Laurel and Broadway, May 15,2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Dear Jane and All Bird Lovers,

RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS have been stealing the show these last two weeks, partly because their babies are so darn cute and partly because they aren’t even supposed to be breeding here. Their normal breeding grounds are in Canada and Alaska, and even northern and Eastern Canada at that.  Red-breasted are a separate species from the COMMON MERGANSERS, the Mergansers that are our normal year-round resident and the ones that usually produce some families during breeding season.   Red-breasteds are a surprise as local breeders!   When I posted my citing to e-Bird, I got an automatic message pointing out that this is a rare sighting and that I needed to give more details.  Fortunately, two leading birders in our area, Kumaran Arul and Alexander Gaguine had also  reported them earlier this week, so I think I’m not going out too far on a limb.  The Red-breasteds can sometimes be hard to distinguish from the COMMON MERGANSERS – but the female Red-breasteds can display a wildly shaggy crest that the Commons can’t equal. I hope these mops are shaggy enough for e-Bird!   I was just done oohing and aahing about the little family of four when not much later along came another family of 7 fledglings.  I could hardly believe my eyes.  Two families within minutes of each other on one stretch of the river!  The babies are so little but they must have powerful legs. When they pick up speed to keep up with their mother,  they lift right up out of the water and seem to be flying rather than swimming.. Watching 7 tiny babies flying over the surface of the water has got to be one of life’s finest experiences.

RBM with 7 babies
A second family of Red-breasted Mergansers,same area on the river, May 15,2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Coming in a close second this week for drama are the rambunctious CLIFF SWALLOWS.  Today I counted about 75, dipping and darting with wild abandon around the Laurel and Riverside Bridges.  I also counted about 120 old mud nests in various states of repair on just these two bridges.  The swallows have their work cut out for them, for sure!  Quite a few of of the nests at the Laurel Bridge had one Swallow seeming to hold down the fort while another went out gathering mud and catching insects. The Cliff Swallows have been here now for quite a few weeks, but according to BNA, the males tend to arrive first, and only begin pair formation and nest building when the females arrive.  Did you know that the famous swallows of Capistrano are Cliff Swallows!  I had to wait 80 years to learn that.

swallows in nests 4
Cliff Swallows holding down the fort as partners forage and gather mud to repair these old nests.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

People that I meet on the River are always interested that we have not just one but two species of white egrets on the River – the larger and less commonly seen GREAT EGRET (37” long) and the smaller SNOWY EGRET (27” long).  And of course that doesn’t count the other member of the family, our iconic GREAT BLUE HERON (46” long).  What treasures our river holds.  ( I caught this photo of the Great and Snowy next to each other for comparison. ) These are all colony-nesting birds, usually high up in trees.  I would love to know where our birds are nesting these days.

Great and Snowys
Great Egret and two Snowy Egrets out in the middle of the river. The water is so shallow that they appear to be walking on the river.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Two lovely KILLDEERS were hanging out on the sandbars between Laurel and Riverside this week, a very probable habitat for their nests.  I felt horrible when I saw a young woman throwing a ball for her dog right where the the birds might be nesting.  We have got to get the City to put up signs letting people know that it is illegal to be anywhere on the levee banks or next to the river.

Killdeer drinking
Killdeer taking a drink from the river.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwomannter a caption

My strangest sight this week was a GREEN HERON squawking loudly while dive-bombing a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK.  What do you think that was about??  I hope not nest robbing. The heron quickly flew off and this elegant fiend settled down on a pole above my head, pretending that nothing had happened.

“Who, me??”  Red-shouldered Hawk  after being chased by Green Heron.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

So far this summer I’ve seen only one MALLARD family with babies, and not a single WOOD DUCK or PIED-BILLED GREBE family.  I don’t know whether the one grebe I’ve seen on the river is a bachelor or is one of a pair. Grebes tend not to hang out with each other, and they look almost exactly the same. I’m hoping our grebe has a partner tucked away somewhere on a well-concealed floating nest, incubating some eggs and waiting his or her turn to leave the nest and catch some delectable crawfish.  I saw two male Mallards chasing a female Mallard this week, so maybe some second families are in the making.

One of the few Mallard couples still on the river, perhaps planning a second family.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

I got a fund-raising letter from the UCSC Arboretum this week pointing out that anxiety will be the leading health problem by 2020, replaceing diabetes.  The point being made was that nature is one of our great resources to provide respite from an over-stimulating and too often distressing society.  I feel so grateful that there are so many people in our community dedicated to protecting the nature we already have and trying to create even more places where people can benefit from the healing effects of a tree or a flower or a river.

Flowers between Laurel and Riverside Bridges.  May 15, 2018 photo by B. Riverwoman

The riverside flowers these days may not be natives – but they delight my eyes.   I like to believe that Wordsworth was right when he suggested that nature and birds and trees all experience joy – and that this joy is contagious.   It is certainly true that I always feel more joyful after walking along the river.

“Through primrose tufts in that green bower

The periwinkle trails its wreathes,

And t’is my faith that every flower,

Enjoys the air it breathes”.

William Wordsworth

May we all  breathe in some anxiety-reducing joy from the birds and flowers and trees.


8 thoughts on “Mergansers Steal the Show

  1. I don’t know about your Red-breasted Mergansers, Barbara! That’s pretty contrasty between the head and neck. And I think the shagginess of the crest can be mighty variable. Like my hair on a windy day. Batya thinks so too…

    1. You may be right about the neck ring and the windiness. Thanks so much for reading our blog and being a critical reader in the very best sense! . I am also a little worried about the thickness of the bill and also the fact that I have seen male Common Mergansers on the river but never a male Red-breasted Merganser. I will do some further sleuthing and keep you and readers posted. Thanks again.

  2. Thank you Barbara for those amazing observations and pictures. Merganzers … even though their identity is still a question in my mind …. SO CUTE!!!!! And what was a Green Heron doing going after a red shouldered hawk? I guess it’s obvious but how is a hawk going to find it’s babies? Thank you and Jane for all you do to show how alive this precious river habitat is.

    1. So glad you liked this post! Thank you. I am definitely wanting to know more about that clash between the Green Heron and the Hawk. Sounds like a mystery thriller. Maybe it is. I never saw anything like it. And thank you for all the work you have done over the years for the environment – and continue to do in a new and creative way.

  3. What wonderful photos, bringing us into your world along with the spirited descriptions. We and the birds have a friend.

  4. I like these little red-heads!!! And kudos to you on a rare sighting. I also loved the other photos. I completely agree that nature is the treatment for anxiety:)

    1. Thanks, Candy. Unfortunately, it turns out not to have been a rare sighting. They are Common Mergansers, not Red-breasted Mergansers. I will write more about this in my next blog. But rare or not, the ‘little red-heads’ are cause enough for celebration!

Leave a Reply to Ed Cancel reply