One of the pleasures of winter birding is the search for wintering waterfowl. Ducks that have bred in wetlands at more northerly latitudes fly south to swim and forage in ponds and lakes that are not covered with ice. In this relatively mild winter, local lakes lost their ice cover in mid-February, much earlier than usual. A friend who lives on a bay of Baker’s Lake told me that common mergansers (Mergus merganser) moved in almost immediately.
Despite its moniker, the common merganser is hardly common, either in appearance or in numbers. The male is a large and visually striking duck with bold black and gleaming white plumage that makes it easy to identify in flight, along with its very straight, pointed-at-both-ends profile. Its head actually is covered in dark green feathers but they look black – or at least very dark – from a distance.
The female looks quite different. Similar in size, she has cinnamon-red head feathers that protrude in a shaggy crest on the back of her head. She lacks the black and white contrast feathers of her mate, sporting instead a back of gray plumage, and white wingbars and chest.
The beak of both sexes is carmen red, and long, thin, and sharp, suited for catching the fish and other freshwater creatures mergansers relish. As diving ducks or “fish ducks” as they’re sometimes called – as opposed to surface-feeding ones – mergansers spend a lot of time underwater. So many times I’ve pointed one out to others, only to have it instantly disappear from sight to pursue an underwater snack. The name “merganser” translates roughly from Latin as “plunging goose.” In fact, another nickname for the species is “goosander.”
At different times we host three types of mergansers in the Barrington area: common, red-breasted, and hooded. The common is the largest but least abundant locally. To see one, you need to visit an open body of water sometime between November and March. Common mergansers are one of the last ducks to arrive in the fall and one of the first to leave in late winter or early spring. They are apt to appear at any lake that hosts fish for them to consume. Some local favorites are Baker’s Lake, Honey Lake, Hawley Lake, Lake Barrington – and, if you happen to travel to the city, Lake Michigan. There is time still left to find common mergansers nearby before they take off for their breeding grounds, not to return until late next fall.
Barrington area naturalist and the author of our Birds of Barrington series here at 365Barrington.com, Wendy Paulson welcomes you to join her for this new season of walks. Cosponsored by Audubon Chicago Region and Citizens for Conservation, the walks are free and open to the public, though spaces are limited and RSVPs are required. Waterproof boots are strongly recommended for these hikes and don’t forget your binoculars!
April 7, 8 a.m.
Beese Park (Meet at Beese Park, east end of Cornell Avenue)
April 21, 8 a.m.
Beese Park (as above)
May 5, 7:30 a.m.
Baker’s Lake (parking lot on Highland Ave. south of Hillside Ave.)
May 12, 7:30 a.m.
Camp Reinberg (entrance on east side of Quentin between Dundee & Lake Cook Rd.)
May 19, 7:30 a.m.
Beverly Lake* (parking lot on north side of Higgins Rd/Rt. 72, east of Rt. 25, west of Beverly Road)
May 24, 7:30 a.m.
Penny Road South* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
June 2, 7:00 a.m.
Headwaters* (parking lot on Wichman Rd. off north side of Rt. 72; ½ mile west of Rt. 59)
June 9, 7:00 a.m.
Galloping Hill* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
June 18, 5:00 p.m.
Galloping Hill* (as above)
*indicates a more strenuous hike
Please RSVP to: Daniel Jacobson (312) 453-0230, Extension 2002 or email@example.com and let us know how best to contact you should that be necessary. Before you head out, please be sure to check the Citizens for Conservation website (CitizensForConservation.org) for any last minute changes or cancellations.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.