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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The hooded merganser

Male ducks are different from other birds in that they typically change into their breeding colors before winter and slip out of them by the end of summer. Most male birds don’t think such thoughts until Spring, and once the passions of mating and the responsibilities of parenthood subside with the end of summer, they greet old man winter with their work clothes on— hanging up the fancy duds till the following Spring. Therefore, now is a great time to be scoping out waterfowl during your birding excursions. They’ll never be prettier.

But to add further interest into the wonders of waterfowl, lets consider a couple species that nest in trees. Say what? Ducks that nest in trees? Yes, some do! And typically they are the most spectacular species. So let’s take a look at a couple of these exquisite ducks of the timbers.

Probably the most beautiful duck in North America, and one quite common in our area waters, is the Wood Duck. This bird sits alone in its own genus, aix, at least in North America. Its cousin is the equally gorgeous Mandarin Duck of China and Japan. But as the Mandarin only occurs in the United States in the hands of bird fanciers, we will limit our attention to our own native specie.  

Wood Ducks are easy to find. Almost any quite slack body of water will have at least a pair. I encounter them frequently. A couple accessible spots are Denton Slough and the slack waters of the Clark Fork River.

How can I begin to describe the spectacularly attired male? Where do I begin? You won’t mistaken him for any other bird. The first thing you might notice is the bright red and white bill, often outlined in bright yellow near its base. The head is a bright green affair with a jaunty peaked cap that lays backward, outlined with white piping and often hued with a metallic sheen. The eye is an unlikely bright red, and the cheeks and neck are also outlined in that perfect white. The body of the bird is equally difficult to describe. Imagine, if you can, a purplish or rusty red breast and neck, often spotted in beige, a beige belly, and silvery-russet flanks. The back of the bird is of dark, varying hues in black and deep blue that tapers to a similarly colored tail. Throw in white strips that demarcate between the major color schemes, then you have it: the male wood duck.      

The female Wood Duck is fairly exotic as far as female ducks go. As is typical with most bird species, the female’s coloration is more cryptic and camouflaged. I am sure that this ensures a longer lifespan! The female will sport a steely gray beak, a distinctive white eye patch, and a generally brown color scheme highlighted with bright green or greenish blue wing accents. Your surest field mark might be her association with the bright male.  

Remember, these are little ducks, only about two-thirds or so the size of a mallard. And they are shy. You might have to sneak up on them to get a good glimpse with your binoculars.

The other duck of interest is a diving duck, a merganser. In contrast to the dabbling ducks which primarily eat plant foods reached from the water surface, mergansers dive. And they are carnivores. They eat just about anything they can capture, from fish, to insects, to crawdads. The one I am interested this month is the Hooded Merganser. Wow, what a beautiful duck!

This is the smallest specie of merganser in North America, about the same size as a Wood Duck. The male Hooded Merganser is distinctive because of the huge patch of white it displays on its head. It looks like a sail! And it can raise it up and down, depending on its mood. Meaning, if he is showing off for his lady friends. All of this white is surrounded by black and accented with a bright yellow eye. The black beak is very small and trim. The bird sports a white breast intersected with a dark black ‘spur’ coming down from each shoulder area. Its flanks are dark rusty red. The back is black but there are series of white “flames” that erupt from the center of the back and taper off toward the tail. Truly a striking creature.  

The female is distinctive in her own right. She has the perpetual bad hair day, sporting a huge spiky mop of faded rusty red. Otherwise she is mostly browns and grays.  

Be warned. Don’t confuse the male Hooded Merganser with the Bufflehead Duck, a fellow tree nester. The littler male Bufflehead will be mostly whites and  blacks. And while his sail is almost on par with the Hooded Merganser, it is a Genoa jib compared to a spinnaker.  Close, but not quite the same.

Get out there. Now is the time to ogle the waterfowl. If catching a glimpse of these two species doesn’t hook you on birding, than nothing will. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, hooded merganser, duck, wood duck

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