Sunday, November 1, 2009

Red-breasted mergansers on Lake Ontario

from New York Outdoors Blog by newyorkoutdoors

By ELIZABETH KELLOGG,, link to original post
On and on they came, flying low over the water. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand -until 15,000 had passed the observer on the west beach in Port Hope. This week, red-breasted mergansers have arrived in large numbers on Lake Ontario.

Red-breasted mergansers are a fish-eating duck. They dive to catch their prey. When they surface, the opportunistic gulls will swoop in and try to steal a fish.

Often, large flocks of red-breasted mergansers can be found because of the gulls swirling around above them. Most of the thieves are herring gulls, although today, there were a number of great-blacked gulls in the flocks.

All mergansers have a bill with a serrated edge. The serrations point backwards to help them hold onto their slippery prey.

The red-breasted merganser male has a green head with a pronounced crest which gives it the look of a punk hairdo. It has a white collar and reddish brown breast. White wing linings and speculum with dark primaries make it easy to identify in flight and even at a distance. The female has a brown head and whitish throat, grey body and white belly. The female has a similar pattern of white and dark on the wing as the male. Young birds and males in eclipse plumage have similar plumage to the females.

The red-breasted merganser breeds throughout the northern hemisphere, in Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia as well as northern Canada and Alaska.

The species is widely distributed in Ontario Canada, breeding mostly in Northern Ontario, although there were many records in the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2001-2005 from around Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.

In southern Ontario, most records were from Prince Edward County and the Thousand Islands.

They typically nest close to water along lakeshores and forested riverbanks. They also like inland and coastal islands. The nests are built in a depression on the ground and are usually sheltered by trees, stumps, driftwood or shrubs.

Most of the red-breasted mergansers which are being seen on Lake Ontario now are passing through en route to wintering grounds on the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Populations from further west winter on the Pacific coast.Along with the thousands of red-breasted mergansers are other diving ducks — a few common mergansers, scoters (black, surf and white-winged).

As the seasons passes, the mergansers will be replaced with scaup, long-tailed ducks, common goldeneye and bufflehead. These species are all fish eaters, although some also eat invertebrates such as zebra mussels.

Also in the mix are many common loons, often a few red-throated loons and grebes, most commonly red-necked and horned grebes. Like the mergansers, these species have just begun to arrive in numbers. Cormorants in the flocks will soon be departing for the Gulf of Mexico.

If you want to see the passage of the mergansers, you should be at the shore fairly early in the morning. By mid-morning, there are many fewer birds to be seen. Two years ago, several northern gannets, a bird of the Atlantic Ocean, turned up on Lake Ontario in these swirling masses of diving du

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