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Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington | Red-breasted Merganser

Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington | Red-breasted Merganser

Ducks are very much tied to the seasons in Barrington. Mallards can be found locally all year long. Other ducks nest in the Barrington area during breeding season, species like wood duck and hooded merganser. Most of the rest pass through on their northward and southward migrations in late fall and early spring, or spend the winter in local waters. Getting to see them depends largely on when the lakes and ponds and rivers are free of ice.

One of the species we can regularly expect to see from late fall to early spring is the red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator). When Bakers Lake and other local bodies of water lose their ice cover, this mid-sized merganser is sure to visit, sometimes in large numbers. During the recent arctic blast, the best place to find the red-breasted merganser and other ducks was around dams in the Fox River where there was open water.

The red-breasted merganser falls midway in size between the common merganser and hooded merganser. The male is a handsome dude with a shaggy green head, prominent white neck band and wing patches, red bill and eyes, and, less conspicuously, a somewhat reddish, dotted breast which is the source of its name. The female has none of the male’s flashiness. She’s mostly grey, with a reddish head and unkempt hairdo. Both sexes have a similar profile in flight: long, slender, tapering at both ends, and wings with conspicuous white patches.

Like its cousins, the red-breasted merganser is a diving duck. Its long, narrow, serrated bill is designed to snag small fish and crustaceans underwater. It’s always important, when trying to identify distant ducks, to determine whether the ones you’re looking at are surface feeders (e.g. mallards, shovelers) or divers, like the mergansers. That simple observation will cut your list of possibilities in half.

In winters when local water bodies are frozen, Lake Michigan often is not. On a recent lakefront walk our band of birders counted 70 red-breasted mergansers (and more than 180 common mergansers). It’s often easy to spot them in the Chicago River from bridges and riverbank walkways.

Since this merganser is an arctic and sub-arctic breeder, our only opportunities to see them occur during migration and in winter, assuming there is open water for them. At Bakers Lake, my preferred spot to look for red-breasted mergansers, the best window lies between late March and late April. Since the birds will be headed to nesting grounds, it’s possible to witness their elaborate courtship displays which include head shakes and salute-curtsies, when the males half-submerge and project their heads and beaks skyward. Now, that is plenty of reason to head out to local lakes in early spring in search of this interesting and eye-catching species.

* Top Photo Credit: Davey Walters / MacaulayLibrary.org

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.

Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson

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.

CLICK HERE to explore all of the local bird profiles Wendy has authored in our Birds of Barrington series at 365Barrington.com.

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