Ummmm the Merganser…I Think

Howdy Everyone! We are still celebrating reaching our 300th comment here at LifeIntrigued so pardon the mess. For those interested, Ron was the lucky commenter and will soon be receiving a token of appreciation in the mail – well… as soon as we figure out what that will be, we’ll be sending it out. He was also extended a guest blog spot so we are all looking forward to that. In the meantime, you are just going to have to make due with more Yellowstone posts. There are two similarities with the last post – one is it once again covers water fowl and like last time there are struggles on the identification front. The good news is the images are little sharper (not tack yet, but getting more familiar with the Beast). I must say, I am actually pretty happy with the action shots. The takeoff scenes were actually taken from the car doing my best to keep the Beast on focus while panning to compensate for the narrow field of view. Be sure and check out the larger versions up on our SmugMug site (link here).

I had just maneuvered the Beat into position to capture these ducks enjoying the water when they started their pre-launch plan. I am not sure if pulling up next to them in the car or pointing the bazooka glass at them startled them, but they definitely wanted out of there.

I was shooting at f4 so the depth was too shallow to get all the ducks focused in, but to be honest it gives a pretty interesting effect. The larger version gives a better view of it, but they were literally walking on water while building air under the wings. In the following shot they are just beginning to get air under their wings.

Hit the jump to see some more images of these birds taking flight!

At this point the panning is compensating for some of the travel, but they were actually moving closer to me and getting too much separation to keep all the ducks in the viewfinder. Note, I was tracking the lead ducks in this shot and trying to hold focus point on the center duck. These three had successfully taken to the air.

Panning back I was able to catch the stragglers. It is unfortunately that the water was reflecting the deep earth tones preventing good pop on the ducks, but again, based on the speed this was all happening at, I’m extremely happy with the results. It is difficult to tell from this reduced image, but it is likely that that closest duck was holding focus in the following shot.

Put your seats in their upright position and make sure your belts are on. By now, my pan distance was restricted by the car window casing but I was able to get this last shot off before they were all out of there. It is unfortunately that the shutter went off a fraction of a second too late to get the full beak of the first duck in but it was quick enough to get the other two in at least.

Have you noticed I have been referring to them simply as ducks up to this point? There is a reason for that and it is pretty simple – I am still not 100% sure what it is thanks to a growing annoyance with my reference books. My library includes Field Guides from Sibley, National Geographic, Smithsonian and National Audubon Society. The reason for this is none of them have had, in my opinion, the required number of images to properly identify birds (of any type). One will have a couple of good pictures of adults but not breeding coloring, others will have only a female or male juvi making it difficult to match with the immature colors.  At this point it seems like a requirements to have 7 images minimum for each bird – Adult Male Non-Breeding, Adult Male Breeding, Adult Female Non-Breeding, Adult Female Breeding, Male Juvenile, Female Juvenile and lastly the newborn (male/female are generally similarly colored).  Until some birding association takes the time to do this, we amateurs are going to continue to struggle.

However, since I am not a professional birder by any means I have freedom to guess my ass off.  Referencing the bird markings in the flight pictures above, the closest match appears to be the Genus Mergus.  This conclusion was based on the red bills and brownish streamlined heads.  Here is a still that shows those two features while at rest.

Getting the genus helps narrow it down to really two birds, the Common Merganser and the Red Breasted Merganser.  For the curious, the Hooded Merganser is actually in the Genus Lophodyte and the head shape is differentiated.  Now it is time to dig a little deeper into the features to properly identify it… and this is where the confusion enters.  The Common version is well.. more common in their region, but Yellowstone does fall into the migratory paths for the Red Breasted.  Closer inspection shows a twin crests on the juvis and adults which doesn’t match with our specimens.

Looking closer at the coloring in these bottom swimming shots, the grey coloring lends itself to a juvi or female.  Sibley gives a little bit more details and gives the season mapping for the adult female breeding from October to July.  Since we were out there in mid October I think we can finally tag this one….

ouch, “evil look” – apparently I shouldn’t use the term tag – how about we go with label instead.    Next up is to finalize the white colored ducks in the takeoff shots above.   The Sibley reference is the only one that shows the white stripping on the wings gone the full width of the wing.  National Geographic has completely worthless images that doesn’t even bother to show their inflight coloring from above.  They did have a better written description providing little tidbits like:

  • One of the largest ducks
  • Stable or increasing population in North  America
  • Deep diver but will forage in shallow water by swimming with its head underwater

Tossing that book aside, next up is the Smithsonian reference.  Generally, this guide is pretty good since they have real pictures of the birds in it.  But they chose to only put a swimming female and breeding male.  No flight pictures so there is absolutely no way to really match any of the wing coloring beyond what is exposed with it folded in.  They also tainted the coloring making it look like the male heads are black!  It did have their average sizes called out L25″ WS34″ WT3.4LB with males larger than females.  Adding no value to the hunt, the Audubon field guide just had a picture of the male resting in the water and the same dark tinting as Smithsonian.

Last stop is Google of course.  There were a few shots out there that came close, but there was definitely a common theme of the white strip on the wings not making it completely across or much darker shades of head coloring.  With a strong sigh, I have decided to stay with the Common Merganser… can I get an ovation…

Thank you, thank you very much.  Of course I am always willing to admit it when I am wrong so feel free to do your own investigations and let me know your findings.  At this point we have come to the “tail end” (thank Ron for that segue!)

of the post you fools.  I hope you enjoyed the shots! and again, feel free to check out our galleries up on Smugmug (link here)

4 thoughts on “Ummmm the Merganser…I Think”

  1. Concur. Photos match the non-breeding, basic plumage shots I see online (i.e., the head is brown instead of green). The Red-Breasted Merganser has red eyes, while the Common Merganser has dark eyes, a white chin and a sleeker crest like these.

    Here is a photo showing the white strip on the wings going completely across the wings. Ironically, it’s labeled as a Common Merganser but it has red eyes. It’s a dead match other than that, but this dark vs. red eye feature is listed as a difference between the two species.



  2. So two for two! Your shot definitely has red eyes which doesn’t seem right, but the photographer vibranced that shot making the legs and bill almost red as well instead of being a bright orange. The band definitely goes all the way across so I’m in agreement – noting that this is the same problem I run into all the time time whether in reference books or google – they state something and sure enough you will see a picture that disproves it – sigh. Anyway, thanks for confirming that for me — sooooo what did you thing of the shots?



  3. Oops, I was going to say that the photos are fantastic. Definitely contest-worthy! Are you sure these weren’t from Linda’s camera? I like the sequence of the first three very much, and also the fifth which, as you say, would have been magnificent if the bill of the front duck had not been cut off. I can imagine, though, the difficulty in panning The Beast to match something like that. It’s still a very nice shot, though, and would do very well in a contest. The fourth photo is very sharp and an action shot with the water splashes, but the birds overlap too much.

    Hey, maybe my guest post could be on my Mt. Rainier photos. I’ll have to see if any of them actually came out well.

    I thought at the end you should have said “At this point we have come to the “tail end”” rather than just the “end”. I have another idea along these lines but I’m not willing to have my name associated with it. At least not until my guest post…



  4. OUCH – Linda’s wins one itty bitty head to head competition and people start assuming all the best shots are from her! .. and once AGAIN for the RECORD, the competition was based on overall points. Like always, this is 3 points for every 1st, 2 points for every 2nd and 1 point for every 3rd and 2,000 points for an honorary mention at at big pond event.

    Mt. Rainier photos would be cool – especially the snow in the summer! Let me know when they are ready and maybe we can use drop box to get them moved over to smugmug to use on the post.

    I love the tail end – so much I changed the post – it took so long to get the post done my creativity had drained by then but was specifically holding that picture for last (obviously).

    Thanks for all the comments!


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