Not Only Buffleheads Have a Big White Head Patch: One Merganser Does Too

All winter long, I’ve enjoyed watching mergansers. I found the male Red Breasted Mergansers particularly endearing as they tried to woo their indifferent mates. The simpler coloured Common Mergansers also popped up through the surf with pleasing regularity. I nurtured a tiny secret longing, however, to see a male Hooded Merganser, particularly after seeing the striking cover photo of the book the Birds of Georgian Bay.


Still, when I searched for reports of Hooded Mergansers they were few and far between. Most birds were spotted by better birders than I in areas with large expanses of water where I could all too easily overlook them. So I resigned myself to missing them, at least for this year.

Photo of Hooded Merganser Male Best on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Imagine my blast of pure energy, then, when I stepped cautiously around a curve of pebbles and sand where Lake Ontario meets a stream, and spotted under the trailing stems of a willow, a flash of white on black. Somehow I just knew it was a Hooded Merganser.

Photo of Hooded Merganser Pair on NaturalCrooksDotComS

And sure enough, it was. In fact, it was two, a pair.

Unfortunately, they had seen me at exactly the moment (or before) that I saw them. They swam swiftly round the bend upstream. I followed as slowly and cautiously as I could, but I knew my time might be strictly limited. Unlike the birds, I knew upstream were more people, not fewer.

Hooded Merganser Female on NaturalCrooksDotCom

You can see the female has a “hood” too that she can fluff up or lower. Here it’s partly fluffed.

Once more, I had to manually focus my Nikon D5100 through a tangled tulgy of red osier and reeds. The birds were seriously distant from me, but the bright blue sky and the noon day sun helped give me enough light to capture at least some fuzzy images.

Photo of Hooded Merganser Pair Up on NaturalCrooksDotComS

You can see here that the female can be easily overlooked if seen from the wrong angle!

Within three minutes, the birds spooked and flew off towards Lake Ontario. I couldn’t help but cheer them on, though. I had finally seen a pair of Hooded and I hadn’t even been looking for them!

When I got home, though, I realized I know next to nothing about these birds. Do they fish in deep water in lakes like the Red Breasted and Common Mergansers? Or do they chase smaller prey in the streams and rivers? Do they eat fish, or crayfish, or mollusks, or all of the above? Do they nest here in the Toronto-area, or do they fly up to the taiga or tundra?

As I often do, I started with a peek at Cornell University’s All About Birds site. They have a tremendous amount of information online ready to read. I encourage you to visit their website.

Upon what Do Hooded Mergansers Like to Munch?

It was no surprise to find this merganser also eats fish. AllaboutBirds says small fish are taken. They also eat aquatic insects, which I had not expected. Crayfish are also food. In fact, it appears they will eat almost anything small and tasty.

Their preferred summer habitat is small bodies of water in southern forested areas, according to AllAboutBirds. So it’s possible the pair I saw might return and nest in the area. It’s unlikely though as the stream is not particularly clear and the website says they prefer to be able to see to hunt.

Look! Up in the Tree! Is it a Finch? Is it a Jay? No, It’s a Duck!

To my surprise, Hooded Mergansers have something in common with Wood Ducks: they both nest in tree cavities. These nest holes are usually 10-50 feet off the ground. The poor chicks are expected to jump out when newly hatched and crash land to the ground. Ouch!

And according to AllAboutBirds, it is the mother who calls them to plummet to meet her. And I thought I was a bad parent if I just shouted from the kitchen for my kids to get up!

They nest throughout southern Ontario including in the GTA. I’ll have to keep my eyes open in the future. Although this was my first close encounter with Hooded Mergansers, I’ll be happy if it’s not my last!

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