Dead Zones Beckon


“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir


White Pine tree and Appalachian Mountains

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”  – John Muir


Mature Eastern Hemlock trees on the floodplain of a mountain stream

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir


Puddling swallowtails seeking moisture, nutrients and enhanced reproductive success from the mud near a mountain spring


Maidenhair Fern after a rainy night

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains.” – John Muir


Wild Columbine


Wild Mountain Azalea

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the      universe.” – John Muir


Free-stone mountain stream


American Merganser on an early morning perch above a beaver pond


Newly hatched mayfly dun on the surface film of a mountain stream



Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

The Common Merganser

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.


A pair of Common Mergansers (1 of 2)


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.


Common Mergansers (left and third from left) on a stream in late winter

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.


Common Merganser, male (1 of 2)



Common Merganser, female (1 of 2)



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.


Merganser hen and Snapping Turtle (1 of 3)



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.


Common Merganser, female

All photos by NB Hunter

Quality Time with Mergansers

I was scouting cut corn fields on a tip that migrating snow geese were stopping to feed and rest. It was 19 degrees with a 20 mph wind, so road hunting from the warmth of my truck seemed to be the best strategy.

I didn’t see snow geese but spotted a pair of hooded mergansers on a tiny, roadside  pond. Hooded mergansers are small, fast-flying diving ducks that are wary and intolerant  of disturbance. The pond, probably installed for erosion control, was no more than 50 feet across and rimmed with small trees and brush. Most small ponds in the area were frozen, so I assumed it was spring fed and healthy. Somehow I managed to ease the truck off the road and reach a vantage point without pushing the mergansers off the water. After a few minutes they settled and resumed normal activity, treating me to an hour-long demonstration on the feeding behavior of a pair of hooded mergansers.


Hooded mergansers; the male has just surfaced from a feeding dive.

In the spring, small ponds, swamps and rivers in wooded areas are preferred habitat for breeding pairs of hooded mergansers. Trees are an important habitat feature because this species, like wood ducks, nests in tree cavities. The recommended dimensions for an artificial nest box shed light on the nature of these cavities: roughly 24” high x 11” wide, with an oval-shaped  entrance hole about 4” wide x 3” high.


Brilliant black and white markings and chestnut flanks distinguish the colorful male. The white crest on his head, which he expands when courting, is an outstanding identifying feature for a bird on the water, even at long distances.





The female is drab but has the typical merganser silhouette: a distinct crest and long, slender bill.


Hen that just popped to the surface after a feeding dive




Mergansers are diving ducks. Strong, fast swimmers with long, slender, serrated bills, they are well-adapted for underwater fishing. The dive is abrupt and fast, lasting 5 to 10 seconds. 



While submerged, they search for small fish, frogs, crayfish and small aquatic organisms. In this case, aquatic vegetation on their bills and a worm-like invertebrate (?) caught by the hen suggest that they were foraging at the bottom of the pond.



When feeding, the pair was usually in close proximity to one another. I’m not sure why the hen became aggressive toward the drake, but I believe she was being a bit greedy over the subsurface food supply rather than fending off an unwanted suitor.


The weather failed to improve and the mergansers drifted toward cover near shore. I decided to let them be, grateful for the unexpected quality time and opportunity to observe the behavior of a pair of elusive wild ducks.

All photos by NB Hunter