Monthly Archives: February 2012

Yesler Swamp Bird of the Week: Common Merganser

I’ve always had a special fondness for submariners. Maybe it’s because I remember touring a submarine once with my mother. The sub was here as part of the Navy’s participation in Seafair, and my mom wanted to see all the ships.

The submarine we toured was resting on the surface of the Sound next to a pier, but the main part of the tour wasn’t above water. It was below. When my mother climbed down the ladder into the sub, the young crewmen started giving her wolf whistles because her skirt billowed out. Lord knows how much they saw, but it must have been an eyeful.

Instead of being embarrassed, my mother gave them another flirtatious flip of her skirt and some sexy banter. They roared with appreciation, and so did she. It was the first time I realized my mother was a person, not just a mom. I must have been about ten.

I guess that’s why I always smile whenever I see Common Mergansers fishing at the Fill. They remind me of submarines.

The male doing his business at Yesler Cove today was no exception. He had his head underwater like an upside down periscope, looking for prey. Common Mergansers are visual hunters. When they see a fish, they sound their inner “ba-wooga, ba-wooga,” and dive dive dive, just like all the submarines I used to watch on our little black-and-white TV in the 1950s.

This particular duck was patrolling the entrance to the cove, looking up from time to time to make sure he didn’t bump into traffic. A lot of Mallards and American Wigeons were clogging the mouth of the cove, too. It is a sign of the growing health of Yesler Cove, that both dabblers and divers find enough to eat here. And that thought makes me smile even more.  Humans polluted this cove, but humans are also cleaning it up.

Eventually, the merganser decided to find a less populated place to fish, so revving up his feet like big propellers, he churned the water, flapped his wings, and was gone, leaving behind a big wake and a laughing birder.


• Common Mergansers are our state’s biggest duck. They measure a whopping 28 inches long.

• Males have dark green heads, alabaster white sides, and flaming red bills. Females have rust-colored heads with outrageous mullet-like crests.

• Mergansers’ bills have serrated, tooth-like projections along the sides that help them hold onto the slippery fish they catch.

• Mergansers nest in tree holes or sometimes in rock crevices along rivers in Western Washington and farther north. A day or two after the babies hatch, they tumble out of their holes and walk to the nearest water.

• Parents do not feed their babies, and the babies aren’t very good at catching fish at first. So they subsist on aquatic insects, mollusks, and crustaceans at first.

• Union Bay hosts Common Mergansers throughout the winter, but numbers increase dramatically in spring. We are a famous “staging area,” where multitudes of Common Mergansers gather for several days during migration, feeding in our rich waters and putting on fat for the enormous effort of breeding to come.

His Little Tuft

On those rare winter days in Seattle when the sun shines, I like to get out to East Point to watch the dawn slowly light up the world. If the horizon is clear, you can see the first tinge of light shine on the top of Mount Rainier, then slide gently down its snowy sides in shades of pink, lavender, and gold until the entire mountain glows with unearthly color. The cold, still air of February presses down on the waters of the bay, smoothing the waves into glass, etched here and there by the ducks paddling by who leave behind only ripples and vees to mark their passage.

Such a morning arrived six days ago, and at 7:00 a.m., there I sat at East Point, drinking in great gulps of glory. As the light grew stronger, my friend Mark Vernon shimmered into view. Mark is famous as the Long Walker birder, a guy who thinks nothing of strolling from Montlake Fill to Volunteer Park, birding his way to heaven without the benefit of car. Mark is a very peaceful, centered kind of guy, the perfect zen-ish sort with whom to share such a morning.

So there we were, watching the ducks float by, watching the sun rise higher, trading stories about birds, when all of a sudden, Mark says I shot up from my stool and began jumping up and down shouting gibberish, of which the only two words he could make out were, “Tufted Duck!”

Tufted Ducks are a kind of mussel-eating, fishing duck from Eurasia. They belong to the scaup family and closely resemble both our own scaup, Greater and Lesser. The males of our native species have black heads and chests, gray backs, and pale flanks.  They always look very tailored to me, like little businessmen dressed for success. I would not be all that surprised to see them someday with a tiny briefcase tucked under a wing, and a heavy schedule of appointments. But the Tufted Duck is different from our own more buttoned-down scaup — he has a streamer of feathers sprouting from his crown and flowing down his neck. Picture a middle-aged rock star with receding hairline and a long mullet preserving his illusion of youth, dressed in a suit because he has to appear in court for some infraction — that’s the human equivalent of a Tufted Duck. A bird with attitude.

Tufted Ducks are rare at the Fill. In the past 117 years, since birding records have been kept, only one has ever been seen here before. Statewide, we’ve had only about 50 since record-keeping began. Tufted Ducks don’t belong here. Their true home is Asia, Europe, and Africa. Whenever a Tufted Duck appears on our shores, it means the bird has wandered far off course.

That’s why, when I glanced down at the scaup paddling serenely past the point, almost within touching distance, and I saw his little tuft arch out like a banner, I literally could not believe my eyes. What I was shouting so incoherently to Mark was, “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness, a Tufted Duck, oh my goodness.” Because I was stuttering with excitement, it came out sounding like, “OHMAgans, OHMAgans, OHMAgans.”

Mark must have thought I was chanting the latest in yoga meditation, until he realized no yoga acolyte would hop around as vigorously as I was. Then the words “Tufted Duck” smote his ears and he realized it was just a birder finding the greatest bird she ever saw. I think I’m in love.

(The Tufted Duck continues to enthrall his fans. He’s best found in the early morning off East Point, eating his mussel breakfast.)

The Course of True Love

Cyrano de Bergerac would have understood Northern Shovelers. Cyrano, you may recall, was the swashbuckling hero of Edmond Rostand’s play about true love. He had courage, wit, bravery—and the world’s biggest nose. He also had unbounded love for his gorgeous cousin Roxanne, but he lacked the confidence to tell her so.

When his best friend urged him to tell her of his love, Cyrano answered, “My old friend, look at me, and tell me how much hope remains for me with this protuberance! Oh … now and then I may grow tender, walking alone in the blue cool of evening…. I follow with my eyes where some boy, with a girl upon his arm, passes a patch of silver…and I feel somehow, I wish I had a woman too, walking with little steps under the moon….And then I see the shadow of my profile on the wall!”

Like Cyrano, Northern Shovelers have schnozzolas so immense it’s a wonder they don’t tip right over, nose first, and face plant in the water. Unlike Cyrano, though, they have loads of self-confidence. At least, the male I saw in the Lagoon the other day did. I watched him set eyes on a likely looking damsel sunning herself on a mudbank. Swelling up his chest, he paddled over and began ratcheting his head up and down, swimming back and forth while she watched, mesmerized. He must have been irresistible because she started ratcheting too.

I could see that for her, he was the One. Love at first sight. When another female sidled too close and tried a few head-ratchets of her own, the first female waddled over and gave her rival a ferocious bite. This exhibit of jealousy caused the love-sick male to ratchet so furiously I thought his bill would fly right off.

It’s still early days though—February may be the month for lovers but it’s too cold to lay eggs. So I wasn’t surprised when the male eventually lost interest in Amour and, muttering the equivalent of “Where’s my sandwich?” paddled off to scarf some water plants. From the look in the female’s eye as she watched his rear end disappear in the distance, though, he’s a goner.