Spring Signs: Blackbirds & Merganser Style

Friday, I had a meeting in Eden Prairie, MN--the southwest side of the metro Twin Cities.  As I  traveling on the highway, I noticed a large group of gulls loafing on a pond off the highway.  I made a mental note of the exit and decided to stop there on my way back home after the meeting.  When I pulled down the street, I noticed the ponds were almost completely ice free and could have some bird potential.

When I stepped out of my car, I could smell what had the gulls excited--a fish kill.  The unmistakable aroma of dead fish hung in the air.  The gulls were a mixture of ring-billed and herring and they were so chatty, you almost thought you were at a beach.  A few crows joined the gulls in the rancid feast.

A couple of bald eagles made some passes over the gulls--spooking them a few times.  The eagles flew low but did not land on the ice.   I'm not sure if the eagles were uncertain about the quality of dead fish or the amount of people walking around the lake.  The eagle pictured above eventually perched on top of a tree and watched the gulls for quite some time and never flew to the ice. I got the sense that the bird wanted its share of the dead fish but felt unsure of the situation.

I've heard red-winged blackbirds on and off the last week or two and their call was unmistakable around the fish kill lake.  We still don't have any female red-wings here yet, so the early arriving males still have some time to negotiate their territories.

There was a pond on the other side of the parking lot that was completely ice free and I noticed some splashing sounds.  A quick scan with the scope revealed about 3 pair of hooded mergansers engaging in some mating displays.  Love these little ducks!

Hooded mergansers will use wood duck boxes for nesting--I had one use a nest box at the bird store a few years ago.  It's cool to see this fish eating duck move further and further into the Twin Cities metro area for breeding purposes.  Check out that male's bill above with that dainty little hook on the end of his beak.  One of my favorite illustrations from the duck stamp contest I judged last week was of a male hooded merganser fishing underwater.

The males seemed to have each found a female and the settled down by the time I got close enough for some photos.  I was hoping I could hear their mating call but I think even if they had been giving it, the close by highway would have made it hard to hear.  You can listen to hooded merganser mating calls at Xeno Canto--I love that little croaky call.  I checked over at Cornell's Birds of North America Online for what entails the mating ritual for hooded mergansers and it reads, "Males have elaborate courtship behaviors which include Crest-raising, Head-shaking, Head-throws with Turn-the-back-of-the-head, Head-pumping, Upward-stretch, Upward-stretch with Wing-flap, and ritualized Drinking."

Not unlike humans.  BNA says that you can distinguish "ritualized drinking" from "normal drinking" in male hooded mergansers by the strongly depressed crest and almost vertical orientation of the bill.  So, if you're at a bar and a guy is trying to impress you with his drinking ability--perhaps he is trying to woo you with a merganser flirting strategy?  If you suspect that is the case and you would like to take him up on his advances, you can respond by moving your head up and down in a rapid, jerky motion with your bill (or chin) pointed downward, uttering a hoarse gack.

Here's a video that I got at Wood Lake a couple of years ago of a little hooded merganser display: