Buffleheads, common mergansers and eiders — highlights of recent outings

I’ve been looking for eagles again — with no success. Well, I guess it depends on how you define success. I didn’t find the bird I was looking for, but I did come across other magnificent wildlife in the process.

Mallards in Winter Harbor on March 16, 2014.

Mallards in Winter Harbor on March 16, 2014.

It got me thinking that wildlife watching is kind of like shopping for clothing. If you’re a shopper, bear with me. If you don’t particularly enjoy shopping, you may as well skip the next paragraph.

When you shop for clothing, you can go into the store with open mind and no particular agenda, and you’ll probably find a thing or two you like. Or you can go in the store with a specific item in mind — a long red dress, dark brown loafers, a dark blue tie with sophisticated patterning, green tights — and you probably aren’t going to find exactly what you’re looking for, at least in my opinion. You look, and look, and look. Then you have a choice. You can either get frustrated or you can shrug your shoulders and adapt, broaden your horizons, make due. You might end up with a blue dress instead of a red dress — or while wildlife watching, a merganser instead of a bald eagle.

Squirrel by Kenduskeag Stream on March 17, 2014.

Squirrel by Kenduskeag Stream on March 17, 2014.

That’s what happened to me a few days ago while searching for bald eagles along the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor. After an hour of standing in the blessedly warm sun, I had observed a squirrel leaping from branch to branch, chickadees in the bushes, noisy crows soaring overhead and a group of cooing pigeons — nothing particularly unusual. (Though I did have fun trying to photograph the squirrel in awkward positions as it jumped from tree to tree.)

Pigeons by Kenduskeag Stream on March 17, 2014.

Pigeons by Kenduskeag Stream on March 17, 2014.

Then, in a gap in the ice, I spied a fairly large bird splashing in the water downstream. Looking through my camera’s 300mm lens, I could see that the bird had a bright red beak and matching feet. I’m new at identifying ducks, so had no idea what I was looking at, but I did know I’d never photographed that species before.

A few moments later, the bird dove underwater. I waited for it to pop back up, thinking, “Yikes. It’s swimming under all that ice. I wouldn’t do that in a million years.” And I waited some more, thinking, “Oh my god, did it drown? Is it stuck under the ice?” It turns out, it the bird was a common merganser, which can stay underwater for up to 2 minutes while it searches for fish, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The merganser when I first spied it from a distance. This picture is taken with a 300mm lens, so you can imagine how far away the bird was.

The merganser when I first spied it from a distance. This picture is taken with a 300mm lens, so you can imagine how far away the bird was.

Eventually, the merganser resurfaced. So I headed downstream, tromping through melting snow in an effort to get closer.

Common merganser on Kenduskeag Stream on March 17, 2014.

Common merganser on Kenduskeag Stream on March 17, 2014.

I managed to get quite close, but then the bird started to swim away. I figured it noticed me (crap) so I backed off after taking a couple of photos through a gap in the trees. Later, one of the photos was crisp enough for me to identify it as a merganser of some sort. I contacted Bob Duchesne, founder of the Maine Birding Trail and bird columnist for the BDN, and he identified it as a common merganser. He also told me that I’d likely be seeing more of them along the Penobscot River as the ice melted, and the bird’s sharp beak actually has saw-toothed ridges that allow them to grasp slippery fish.

So now I can add common merganser to my list of birds. Perhaps I’m a bird nerd in the making. (And I say that with delight.)

A female eider off Schoodic Peninsula on March 16, 2014.

A female eider off Schoodic Peninsula on March 16, 2014.

Since I was already bothering Bob with bird photos, I decided to send him another two photographs I recently took after hiking in Acadia National Park on Schoodic Peninsula. He was kind enough to confirm that yes, I did find two buffleheads — two females, in fact – and a female eider swimming nearby. So I added those two to my list as well, even though the photos aren’t great; the birds were swimming quite a distance offshore, and they swam even farther away when they saw me clumsily approaching on the cobblestone beach. Thank goodness for my 300mm lens or I wouldn’t have a clue what I was looking at. I must admit, with the naked eye, I thought the eider was a seal’s head!

Two female buffleheads off Schoodic Peninsula on March 16, 2014.

Two female buffleheads off Schoodic Peninsula on March 16, 2014.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.