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Backyard Files: meet the mergansers

By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Editor

Let me set the scene.

It’s a quiet Sunday morning in late November, the weekend after Thanksgiving. It’s early and it’s
chilly. I’ve headed out for a walk along a pond.

I can hear the silence as I wander the edge of the water. This is a trail I’ve traveled hundreds of
times, so there are usually no surprises. I can appreciate the subtle changes of the season as I
watch the path in front of me — the way the mists rise on a particular day; the brilliance of an
especially pristine sunrise; a fresh paw print in wet mud.

I amble slowly, adopting the pace of a wizened New Englander scanning the woods of his youth.
My inner Robert Frost is delighted.

As I make a peaceful turn around a bend and look out over the water, I stop in my tracks and
squint. There’s a small group of waterfowl on the pond, but I don’t recognize them at a glance. I
patiently wait for them to come closer so I might identify them.

It’s then that I notice the most striking detail of the birds on the water: their headwear. Half of
them appear to be donning the duck equivalent of a Trojan war helmet, while the other half are
sporting what I can only describe as an avian perm.

My inner Frost has vacated. I am left instead with my inner Hunter S. Thompson, madly running
along the side of the water, unconcerned by muddiness and the potential for a catastrophic slip
into the pond, as I position myself for a better glimpse. Standing on a downed tree that
overhangs the shore and steadying myself on a hanging branch, my phone comes out for
identification purposes. My eyes dart from the screen to the pond until I’ve made the connection:
I’m looking, rather wide-eyed, at a clutch of hooded mergansers.

Much as I am pleased to see them enjoying their morning, I am also crossing my fingers that
they might swim close enough to the shore for a decent photo, or at least a clearer glimpse. So
sharp are the males, with their black and brown bodies crowned with black and white crested
heads, that they look like a hunter’s fresh decoys. The females, meanwhile, though drabber in
their gray-brown complexion, are nonetheless attention-grabbing with their lovely haircuts.
The birds take turns submerging themselves, seeking their breakfast — aquatic insects,
mollusks and fish — in the cold waters. They’re natural divers, so they require water of a decent
depth (usually over around 18 inches) in which to hunt.

While hooded mergansers are fairly abundant — their global numbers are estimated to be
around the same territory as that of the bald eagle — my real-life experience had kept me from
laying eyes on one until middle age. It’s a bit of a shock because, as I mentioned earlier, this
trail along the water is one with which I am deeply familiar.

My timing must have been about perfect. These mergansers, with their crests in full display,
were likely in the heart of their mating season. It was the right time to see them.
So, where and when would be a perfect time for Hometown Weekly’s reader to see one?

My advice would be to head out in late autumn to a body of water with at least 18 inches of
depth and a low number of humans around — apparently, the mergansers are less inclined to show themselves if there are too many onlookers. For parks and trails that see a glut of
seasonal visitors, it’s best to head out early to avoid the rush. Walpole’s Turner Pond, I’d gather,
has seen its share of hooded mergansers. Rocky Woods’ Chickering Pond in Medfield almost
certainly hosts them, too, as does Hale’s Noannet Pond in Westwood. In Needham, I’d be
casting my gaze towards Charles River Peninsula and Kendrick Pond. Sherborn’s Leland Mill
Pond, which I love in all seasons, would also be ideal, in part because it’s so wonderfully quiet.

On that Sunday morning in late November, I make my way around the trails and back to my car,
having caught the birds from as many different angles and settings as I possibly can. A stroke of
unexpected luck had brought me in contact with them at precisely the right time; they left quite
the impression on me.

Now, with the trails in my rearview and the day beckoning in front of me, I can only reflect on the
moments with gratitude.

It’s been a good walk.

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