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Waterbirds. They are among the first birds that we learn. Most are found in the open. Most are easy to identify. And most receive little attention after the first few years of birding. Oh sure, we often go look for scoters, eiders or other ducks that occur seasonally, or are rarities; but few of us look at ducks in the way that we look at shorebirds, warblers, or even gulls.
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Structure so often provides the best clue for identifying birds. And while we can’t see the head of this bird (we usually can’t in these photo quizzes!), we can still get a sense that we are dealing with a fairly long bird, one that doesn’t have a very long neck, but doesn’t have the stubby neck we would find on an alcid.
Looking carefully, we should notice that the back of this bird’s head looks a bit shaggy—sort of like how my friend Ted Floyd (Editor of ABA’s Birding magazine) looks when he gets up early in the morning (as Ted would attest, I look far worse). Now this could just be misplaced feathering, but there is one group of birds that often displays a shaggy crest like this—the mergansers.
This bird’s overall gray body isn’t what we would expect on Hooded Merganser, which is either unmistakable (males) or more uniformly brown. Female and eclipse Common and Red-breasted Mergansers do have grayish bodies. We can also see that here the rufous or maybe rusty-brown head contrasts slightly with the gray body. On Common Merganser, we would expect much more contrast and a well-defined line between the rufous head and the grayish neck and body. In fact, this slight contrast in color, without an abrupt demarcation between the head and body, is exactly what we would expect on a Red-breasted Merganser.
This Red-breasted Merganser was photographed in December in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The photo and answer were supplied by Chris Wood.