At first, I thought they were loons, with their large heads and long bills. They were swimming along in a group of 25, bobbing on the choppy water of Flagstaff Lake.
But loons don’t travel in packs that large, do they? I thought not.
Upon closer inspection, through the zoom on my camera, I realized the birds had whitish bodies and brown heads — definitely not loons, then. But I’m just starting to learn my birds; I had no clue what I was looking at. So I snapped a few photos from afar and decided to identify them later.
They ended up being common mergansers — female. All of them female. (The male looks quite different, with a more solidly white body, a black patch on its back and a shiny green head.)
How’d I figure it out? Honestly? I googled “duck with white body and brown head,” looked at the images that popped up, then clicked on an image that looked right. Then I double checked on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, looking from my photos to the photos on the website. I noted that the female common merganser has a white patch on its throat, right underneath its bill, and the birds in my photo also had that marking. They also have a shaggy crest on the back of their head and a bright red bill. While it’s difficult to see in my photos, the birds do seem to have both characteristics. Anyway — I’m 95 percent sure they’re common mergansers because in addition to looking like common mergansers, they’re also acting like common mergansers.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, common mergansers often swim in groups as a protection against predators. They also tend to split up into flocks of males and flocks of females. So the fact that I was seeing a huge group of females is not at all unusual.
After the chicks leave the nest in the summer, the mother stays with them as they grow up, while the fathers typically abandons the nest during incubation and gather in flocks of males. The female then cares for the ducklings on her own and often will escort them from small streams and ponds near the nest site to larger lakes, rivers and bays downstream. The female and her chicks, known as a brood, will often join together with other broods, creating a group of adult females and 40 or more young, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
I think that’s what I saw.
While there’s always room for error when identifying birds by photos, especially for someone new to birding like me, I truly enjoy trying to figure out what I’m seeing in the wild. I think that when you learn from experience, it’s a lot more likely that the knowledge will stick than if you’re simply leafing through a bird guide trying to memorize dozens of species at once.
So if you’re thinking about learning more about the natural world around you, don’t be scared or intimidated. Go outside, find something that sparks your interest, and do a little research. The internet is a wonderful tool and there are some great guide books out there for everything from mushrooms to waterfowl. Honestly, a duck isn’t going to care if you misidentify it the first time around.