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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: the common merganser

Every year is the same, but every year is also different. Spring always follows winter, but from one year to the next there are subtleties between the changes of season. Last year, spring arrived on the scene like a freight train, but this year her arrival has been more coy. We caught a glimpse of her early and then she tricked us with a snowstorm on the official day of her arrival. This year, spring is teasing us.

The birds are not quite so whimsical, however. They seem to arrive on time regardless of conditions in the field. There is always an early killdeer that looks forlorn as it stands by the side of the road and tries to figure out why it’s snowing. There is always that optimistic flock of red-winged blackbirds that fills the air with their fervent songs, and there are always ducks that seem to fly over the area daily in an effort to claim the newly melted waters of the lakes and ponds before any of their competitors.

All ducks are explorers and all ducks seem to have a flair for fashionable elegance with color, but few are as easy to spot as the common merganser. The males are particularly easy to see with their brilliant white plumage contrasting so sharply with the dark waters. Yet, as easy as they are to spot, they have turned out to be incredibly difficult to photograph.

But, then again, the relationship between humans and ducks couldn’t make that endeavor more difficult. There are few birds that humans still shoot at regularly, but ducks are definitely among them. Allowing a human to get anywhere near you is a very foolish mistake if you are a duck. The ones who make it pay dearly. Those that are cautious require great distances to feel safe.

Getting close to a common merganser takes great patience and a fair measure of luck thrown in. I last featured the common merganser in 2008 and presented the best photos that I had managed to capture at the time. But since then, I have always felt that I could do better. So, in the last five years, I have taken advantage of every opportunity I could to improve my photos and now I finally have a set that captures many different facets of these beautiful animals.

As I mentioned earlier, the common merganser is one of those ducks that seems to appear as soon as there is an opening in the ice. Whether it’s the Deerfield River, the Quabbin Reservoir, or the waters of the Connecticut at Barton Cove, these intrepid explorers always seem eager to get the show on the road. Their sudden appearance one day, usually when you least expect to see them, is always a comforting sign.

There is a lake by my house that I must pass in the morning and again in the afternoon on my way home from work. During the days of March, there seems to be a back-and-forth battle with the freezing temperatures of the nighttime hours and the increasing warmth of the sun in the day. Ice expands and retreats on a daily basis and I always check to see if those bright white males are floating along the edge of the frozen water and diving down into the gloom to see if they can catch some fish unawares.

I stopped this spring to look south across the surface of the lake and I was thrilled to see a pair of mergansers toodling along the surface of the choppy water. I had my camera with me (all hail Nikonus and Iso) and was able to record the pair take off and zoom across the edge of the ice. Looking into the sun, the photo has a sparkle to it that I particularly like.

Then, there was a visit to the Turners Falls Power Canal last spring when I finally succeeded in capturing the color on a male common merganser’s head feathers. On a cloudy day, or when you are looking into the sun, the male has a distinct black-and-white appearance. What is difficult to grasp, however, is the fact that these “black” feathers are actually bedecked in dazzling jewel-toned iridescence.

In the 15 years I had been taking photographs, this was the first time I had seen a male merganser with the sun to my back. I was also very comfortably standing by the side of the bike trail that follows the shore of the canal and, as a result, it was easy to stay for the several hours necessary to allow the ducks to feel at ease with my presence.

The fishing must have been good on my side of the canal because one male casually started drifting closer and closer. The thing that really saved me was the fact that mergansers are fish-eating birds that must dive underwater to pursue their prey. Whenever a bird dives you have a few seconds to reposition yourself. There is a clearly confused reaction by the surfacing bird — a sort of “what the…?” — but as long as you assume the same posture every time, it usually works well enough to close some of the distance between duck and photographer.

But my most dynamic photo also turned out to be the most difficult and painful to capture. Once again I had taken up a position alongside a body of water. But, this time, I was hiding instead of just standing. Unlike the Turners Falls Power Canal bike path, which offered open views and a very comfortable photography situation, I was now sitting on the steeply sloping shore of a lake.

Adding to the complexity of the situation was the fact that the ground was wet. This was the only way I could get down to the water level and still have the sun at my back. I was in an area that was heavily utilized by several pairs of common mergansers in early spring and I was hoping to catch them unawares.

I was dressed in camouflage clothing from head to toe and I had then donned a poncho made of mesh with fake leaves in it. To top it all off, I had a large sheet of burlap that had been decorated with autumn camouflage patterns. The problem was that the ground was cold and wet and my hindquarters were falling asleep with every passing moment.

After three hours of this increasingly uncomfortable torture, I was about to give up when a pair of the mergansers suddenly started running across the water right in my direction. They got themselves airborne and made a low pass directly overhead. I managed to track the birds well and freeze the male as he passed above and behind me.

The weather now compels us outside. If you get a chance to bring a picnic lunch to a river and watch the mergansers float by, I would greatly encourage you to give it a try. Before long, it will be too hot or too buggy, but for now, it is simply beautiful out there.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit
www.speakingofnature.com

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