Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Delightful duck-watching at a roadside pond

By CHERYL KIMBALL November 24. 2017 7:59PM
A pair of hooded mergansers glide across a New Hampshire pond. The female, at right, has a burnt-orange crest which showed up brilliantly with the sun in the background. (Courtesy/Cheryl Kimball)

My commute, as I mentioned in a recent column about when I used to regularly go by Hoit Road Marsh, takes me past a small but lovely pond that butts right up against the roadway (or, perhaps more accurately, the roadway was cut snug with the pond). I slow down every morning during the seasons when the pond is ice-free, as well as every evening when the daylight hours increase, to see if I can spot any ducks floating in the pond. Early last week the pond surface was like glass except for several V-shaped wakes of swimming ducks cutting through the stillness.

I did not have my binoculars nor my camera so I watched for a moment and kept driving; I made sure to load my car with these nature-watching tools that evening. The binoculars give me the clear, close-up look I need to see the details of the bird and the camera gives me an image, even if it is a little blurry, to zoom in on my subject later and pick out identifying plumage and other characteristics.

The next morning I did not have time to stop and watch ducks. So I crossed my fingers that the following morning would continue to be calm and the pond still and the ducks busy. I was in luck. The digital camera age allows for taking dozens of shots without having to worry about running out of film or paying to get them all printed in order to catch that one good shot. I snapped the shutter rapid fire as the ducks swam across the pond, actually venturing closer to me. I continued to snap photos as they parted ways, paired off, or came back together in groups. It would have been easy to stand on the pond’s edge all day and watch them.

I really had no idea what they were. The paired ducks looked like completely different species; one of them looked almost like the buffleheads that I’ve seen on the Seacoast all my life, mainly because of the big white patch on its black head, but I knew they weren’t.

When I zoomed in on the best of my images, I concluded it was a group of hooded mergansers (Lophodytescucullatus). The key to their identification was not only the white patch on their heads, which changes depending on whether the crest is raised or lowered, but the two white stripes on their black sides. These ducks have a bit more of a squat, upright profile than the common merganser, which has a longer, more loon-like profile. The female has a burnt-orange crest which in the picture with this column shows up brilliantly with the sun in the background.

The Sibley Guide to Birds says that they prefer smaller, wooded ponds. This pond matches that description perfectly. The hooded merganser is smaller than the common merganser and nests in cavities unlike many such ducks whose nests are simply a scrape in the ground. Interestingly, given my first reaction to the sighting, Sibley’s indicates that it is not uncommon for the hooded merganser to cross with the bufflehead. I can see where the female could be duped given how much the male looks like a bufflehead. Further evidence of how difficult it can be to identify birds!

Songbird scarcity: Readers respond

A few responses came in to my query a few weeks back about whether others have noticed a low number of summer/fall songbirds at feeders like one reader had. Yes, in fact, others had noticed this as well. One writer near Manchester apparently saved some money on suet cakes which she said she used to replace every other day but this year so far each would last a couple of weeks. Two readers near Canterbury remarked on the lack of songbirds. One person said finches were plentiful at his thistle feeders all summer but just about Labor Day disappeared, not to return. Another felt the disappearance coincided with the multiple hurricanes this fall.

A reader in Bedford has not had many birds all spring/fall/summer. She attributed it to an increase in hawk sightings. And bluebirds that she would see all year round have not been there at all to enjoy her mealworms.

Lastly, two readers from Sugar Hill wrote to say that they were lacking birds all summer, even the usually ubiquitous chickadees. Hummingbirds started strong then dropped to a couple frequent feeders. And this has lasted into fall with no flocks of juncos or sparrows.

I have been seeing juncos flitting around the driveway and shrubs. I’m just about to embark on my traditional Thanksgiving weekend start to the songbird feeding season and hope the usual suspects are plentiful.

Stay tuned for my next Nature Talks column with a great gift book idea for your wish list!

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at

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