The other day, a friend of mine passed along the web link to the Great Backyard Bird Count. Between February 17 and 20, we were all supposed to keep an eye on the feeder or head out into the field, keeping track of our sightings and tallying the results at the official web site. This has been going on for years, and it always struck me as odd that such an event would take place in the winter, when there aren’t many birds around. On the other hand, I didn’t know how easy it was to join in.
On President’s Day Hilary and I left town on a field trip and ended up at Spring Lake Regional Park a few miles west of Hastings. This under-used park occupies a bluff overlooking Gray Cloud Island and the Mississippi. It’s one of the most spectacular panoramas in the Twin Cities, and the drama is enhanced by the contrast between the strips of white ice, blue open water, and gray leafless island trees that drape themselves across the river landscape.
We hiked along the edge of Scharr’s Bluff, where Indians camped eight thousand years ago as the raging torrents of Glacial River Warren flooded past below them. Then we drove down to a second section of the park and took a hike through a hardwood forest past a long succession of archery stands to the banks of the Mississippi.
As we emerged from the woods we spotted a cluster of ducks—scores of mallards, a few golden eye, and four mergansers that I took to be the red-breasted sort, due to the distinctive top-notch on the female. A few minutes later a genuine birding party arrived and one of the men asked us what we’d seen.
“Were they common mergansers or red-breasted mergansers?” he wanted to know.
“My understanding is that the female red-breasted has that distinctive top-notch. Isn’t that so?”
“Actually, the common can have that, too," he corrected me politely. "A better sign in the female is whether the head coloring ends abruptly or in a blurred muddle,” he kindly explained.
“Yeah, I think they were red-breasted.” I held to my story. (Please note the two species depicted here, and decide for yourself which is which.)
As we made our way back to the car, the group was probably ruing the fact that the birds they’d come to see had been spooked by novices who didn’t know their winter ducks!
The best sighting we had was on the way out, when we spotted a pair of red-tailed hawks sitting one behind the other on two branches at eye level, maybe five feet apart, as if they were posing for a fiftieth wedding anniversary photo. Sweet.
Back home, I took a look online at the merganser issue and came across such remarks as
“…Another point is the chin and throat. On the common merganser, there is a well defined oval patch on the sides of the chin. On red-breasted it is more blended as seen here. Also, the common merganser has a larger body with bigger tail, but that can be hard to judge. One point that's not usually mentioned is the extension of maxillary feathering on the side of the bill. It forms a wedge or triangle on Red-breasted. On Common the feathering comes straight down and doesn't project into a point. However, this only works in North American populations.”Somewhere along the way, I was reminded of the link to the Great Backyard Bird Count, and though we had not been counting or tallying anything, I filled out a report, including a few species we’d seen recently in the back yard: Canada Goose (80), Mallard (60), Common Goldeneye (4), Red-Breasted Merganser (4), Wild Turkey (6), Bald Eagle (4), Red-Tailed Hawk (2), Red-bellied woodpecker (1), Downy Woodpecker (1), Black-capped Chickadee (20)…and so on.
Here’s where the internet begins to strut its stuff. Once I’d submitted my list, I took a look at what other Minnesotans had seen. It’s a fascinating collocation that you can reference by species. One birder in Duluth had seen 10 red-breasted mergansers. That was it. On the other hand, observers in Hastings, Rosemount, Fridley, Burnsville, Minneapolis, South St. Paul, and Bloomington (all Mississippi towns) had seen common merganser.
The handwriting was on the wall. I resubmitted my tally, changed red-breasted to common…and downgraded my skill level from “excellent” to “good.”