Several years ago, while fly fishing for wild brook and brown trout on a small mountain stream, I had my first close encounter with Common Mergansers. I was fishing a large flat pool, using my best Great Blue Heron imitation to advance as close as possible to rising trout. It was late evening, nearly dark, with fog rolling in over the water. I noticed something fairly large and white near an upstream bank, and assumed that some sort of debris had lodged against the exposed tree roots. That thought satisfied my curiosity, until the large white object began moving – across rather than downstream. I had no idea what this creature was until it hopped up onto a rock and started to preen. I soon learned that a pair of Common Mergansers had drifted downstream, probably headed for the quiet water and tree-lined banks of my pool to roost for the night.
Since that first encounter I have spent a lot of time observing surface waters and their wildlife inhabitants. Common Mergansers are indeed common, much more so than I realized. Wooded streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes all seem to provide suitable habitat.
These large-bodied diving ducks are beautiful and fascinating birds. My first close encounter with the camera was even more thrilling than the previous experience. I set up in a riverbank blind in late winter, in an area where photos of bald eagles, coyotes, mergansers and other wildlife were all possible. Eventually, I saw a pair of ducks in the distance, working upstream in my direction. I waited, motionless, with camera ready. They were perhaps a hundred feet downstream when I heard their approach, the sound of ducks diving for fish. There was a sheet of ice, thin and about 4 feet wide, along the shoreline directly in front of me. Before I realized what was happening, a large light-colored, torpedo-like form appeared under the ice. Moving quickly, it soon surfaced in the open water in mid-stream. Of course it was one of the mergansers, and he had caught me completely off guard. I was so mesmerized by the action that the camera around my neck never entered my mind – until he plopped to the surface. Then I got some lovely shots, photos that will never let me forget this memorable experience.
The following photos were taken in late summer, while I was house-sitting for friends who have a small, spring-fed pond. I was sitting on the bank, using a shrub to break up my outline, watching a hen merganser dive, spear and gulp a bull frog near the far bank. As luck would have it, a Snapping Turtle, and then the hen merganser, chose a dead tree in the middle of the pond to rest in the sun.
Increasing numbers of Common Mergansers and the expansion of their breeding range in the Northeast have led to concerns over the impact of these diving, fish-eating ducks on trout and other game fish. Research that monitors birds with tags and radio-transmitters should help us learn more about this thriving waterfowl species and how to manage it effectively.
All photos by NB Hunter