The Day – Nature Notes: Stonechat makes rough rough spectacular

Meet the red-breasted merganser, a strikingly beautiful diving duck, with a “shaggy” crested head, which regularly visits our Connecticut shores in late fall and winter.

“It, like all species of its tribe, is a very skilled diver,” wrote John James Audubon of the red-breasted merganser in 1833, adding, “and when fired upon with a flintlock pistol (it) escapes generally by disappearing before the shot reaches the place where it has been.”

The “tribe” Audubon refers to are mergansers, a family of diving ducks with pointed, serrated beaks that act like teeth to help them grab hold of their prey: small, smooth fish. They include the merganser, the hooded merganser, and the red-breasted merganser. All three visit Connecticut.

Cool facts:

• Red-breasted merganser are one of the fastest flying ducks, clocking up to 81 miles per hour. However, to get airborne, these slender ducks need a run-up. Their legs are placed close to their rears, making it difficult to walk on land, but they are an asset to diving, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, allaboutbirds.org.

• The same website states that red-breasted merganser should eat 15-20 small fish per day. This means that these active birds have to dive under water 250-300 times a day, or forage for 4-5 hours to meet their daily energy needs.

What’s also nice about these birds is that you don’t need a powerful spotting scope to observe them. Red-breasted mergansers hunt their prey in shallow water, close to shore, so you can often get a good look at them, without extra equipment.

In fact, off the tip of the Borough of Stonington, where the water is clean and clear, I have often seen red-breasted merganser submerged, using their feet for propulsion and scurrying for a minute or more in the medium-deep water. They are very manoeuvrable under water.

The red-breasted merganser is also very attractive.

Male red-breasted merganser, for example, have a dark green head, with a shaggy, crested haircut, red bill and eyes, a handsome white ruff around the neck, and a nice rust colored chest.

Female red-breasted merganser have more muted colors, but they still have that fun, shaggy haircut.

There’s a good reason why female birds don’t have showy colors. When they’re sitting on a nest and hatching eggs, the last thing they want to do is stand out from predators. Instead, they want to become almost invisible and blend in with the environment with very soft colors.

Enjoy bird watching!

Corrections and additions: In a recent column on praying mantis, I failed to mention that there are two non-native praying mantises that outnumber our native Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) for food sources, and their egg sacs are not allowed to be ordered through supply houses. They are the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) and the European mantis (Mantis religiosa).

Bill Hobbs lives in Stonington and is an avid bird watcher. He can be reached for comment on: whobbs246@gmail.com.

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