Weekly Notes – November 9, 2013 Common Merganser

Weekly Notes Common Merganser

Common MerganserAt first glance these birds look like loons, but something seems amiss about the white on their breast and sides.  A closer look reveals they are male Common Mergansers, also called Fish Ducks or Shelldrakes.

Common Mergansers are diving ducks when seen from a distance can easily be confused with loons because of their dark heads and large bodies that sit low in the water.  The head of the male is actually a black-green with a black back and tail feathers, its white breast and sides are tinged with salmon pink.  The females have a crested red head and grey body.  Both have a salmon-pink/red bill and feet.  The bill of the merganser family of ducks is serrated, like a saw with teeth that fit together in order to grasp and hold fish while swimming under water.  I have often observed mergansers swimming with their heads immersed as they look for prey and suddenly disappear leaving barely a ripple on the surface.

Look for Common Mergansers on inland and northern waters where they dive for fish, crayfish, frogs and invertebrates.  When they take flight, notice the heavy body of the Common Merganser requires it to run on top of the water, and once in the air notice their quick wing-beats that flash a white patch as they fly close to the water.

This week I came across a mystery that reminded me we sometimes never do know what happened here.  As I was walking along a pine-needle carpeted woods path, there was a section strewn with dead branches, so much so that I had to watch where I stepped so that I didn’t fall.  A dead pine snag, stood like the skeleton of a scare-crow with stubs of limbs sticking out, bleached white from the summer sun.  It appeared the debris of cast deadwood in the path had come from the top of that tree, but looking closer I noticed a torn hornet’s nest.  This is where the mystery comes in, did a windstorm break off the branches and would they land in a pile at the base of the tree; or did something heavy climb the tree to get to the hornet’s nest causing the branches and ultimately the nest to fall?  Furthermore, if something did climb the tree, could it have been a raccoon or a bear cub?  I never will really know how that pile of sticks ended up in the path and sometimes those mysteries are the best observations we can make.

There was a solar eclipse last Sunday morning, photo courtesy of Paul Cyr Photography

Eclipse of Sun 2013

Ice in afternoonSnow flurries were reported statewide this week.  After all it is November and we are to expect the onset of winter weather soon.  In the north and higher elevations the ponds and shallow coves are beginning to ice over at night.  It’s that time of year!

This week is the waxing Gibbous moon that can be seen in the late day sky.  Pick a time between 3 and 4 p.m. and notice how the moon grows larger and more prominent each afternoon.  Today, Sunday look southward and as the week progresses you will need to look further eastward each day.  This is a fun exercise to share with a child.

The pictures below are of windfall spruce trees.  It is interesting to observe how the trees twisted as they fell, breaking off near the base.  The bark showed small holes about half way up the tree.  Although they didn’t look fresh, close inspection revealed that they were filled with black which when cut open reveal sap.  Most likely the holes were made by woodpeckers and not insects and I would venture to guess Hairy Woodpeckers.  Although there was one place that the holes were in a horizontal line, mostly they were random and sometimes vertical for short distances.  Hairy Woodpeckers will ‘work’ a tree in an ‘S’ pattern as they rotate side to side while dropping down the trunk.  Next time you see a Hairy Woodpecker on the trunk of a tree watch for this feeding pattern as it looks for insects.