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Northland Nature: Hooded mergansers join the migrants

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Hooded merganser pair
A pair of Hooded Mergansers swim in early spring open water. Pictured are a female, left, and a male, right.
Contributed / Mark Sparky Stensaas

Though not as obvious, March followed January and February with an average temperature of less than normal. We had some mild days (55 degrees on March 20), but chilly times, too (minus 13 on March 12). Snowfall was considerably below the usual despite snows in the final days. Precipitation also was less than expected.

It was interesting to see the bird responses. During mild days, birds that had been coming to the feeders stayed away; only a few sporadic chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers here. But when the day became cold with snow and wind, they returned. One day, I noted about 150 redpolls, more than any other day for the whole winter.

The weather appears to have affected bird migration (and non-migrants). A few robins and mourning doves have been observed in the area, and though the red-winged blackbirds have alluded me, they have occasionally been seen by others. Their songs, usually heard during the waning days of March were absent this year. Also, I have not yet heard the drumming of ruffed grouse in the woods or the woodcock’s performance in the wetlands. I expect that to change soon.

During morning walks about two weeks ago, I heard a tom turkey gobbling from back in the forest. A few days later my silent walk was interrupted by loud guttural calls as three sandhill cranes flew over. Their delightful sounds are hard to not hear.

Bird news was happening here a bit slowly, but to see more migrants both in numbers and in variety, I went to visit the St. Louis River.

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The ice cover here persisted through the cold times, but now with temperatures above freezing and movement of the river, the site held large stretches of open water next to remaining ice. It must have been quite chilly out there, especially in the wind, but the newly arrived water birds were here. And I saw many.

The most common of these early waterfowl were Canada geese. Wintering further north than most, they don’t have a long flight. The four that I saw on the first day of open water eventually led to dozens more in following days. Several large white trumpeter swans came by a few days later. These two species were joined by two others often associated with cold water; goldeneye ducks and common mergansers. And after about another week, the smaller hooded mergansers arrived here, too. (Some bald eagles watched as they sat on the ice.)

Hooded mergansers get that name from the puffy rounded crest above the head. Males have black surrounding a large white crest patch. They also have a white chest with dark feathers on their back. Females are mostly brown. Hooded mergansers are the smallest of the three kinds of mergansers in the Northland. The other two, common and red-breasted, are more likely seen in larger lakes. All mergansers have rough, tooth-like bills (sawbills) not seen with ducks.

I was glad to see the pairs of hooded mergansers in this early spring open water. While many of the other water birds here at this time will leave to breed in lakes to the north, some of these birds will stay local. I have seen their families for years when they breed in regional woodland ponds. These wetlands are chosen since they nest in hollows in trees (like wood ducks).

Their home ponds may still be covered with ice, but it is good to see these mergansers back in the region. And I expect to watch them later in the season.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber
MORE BY LARRY WEBER
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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