While watching the usual suspects (mallards, golden eyes, buffleheads, wigeon, etc.) on a pond at the Crystal Lake Fish Hatchery (Shasta County CA) I noticed an unusual bird and was delighted to identify a single male hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) swimming among the other waterfowl. I searched for another hooded merganser but none were around. This male spent much of its time swimming with a pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).
The hooded merganser, the smallest of the three North American species, arrives early at its breeding ground, often around the time of the ice melt. Indeed, the ice here has barely melted and I took the pictures while standing in the snow.
The hooded merganser, to my eye, is a handsome bird. The male has a black head, neck, and back. The underparts are white with two black bars on the side of the breast while the flanks are chestnut. When raised, the distinctive, collapsible crest shows a large, fan-shaped white spot. From a distance this white spot makes the hooded merganser’s head look very similar to the head of a bufflehead (Bucephala albeola). When the crest is lowered, the male hooded merganser appears to have a white stripe behind its eye. The wings are dark, the eyes are bright yellow and the thin bill is dark grey. Since its feet are far back on its body, the hooded merganser is a good swimmer and diver, but is awkward on land.
Hooded mergansers prefer fresh water habitats such as small pools, ponds, rivers, streams and swamps near forests. They forage underwater, finding their prey by sight and capturing the prey with their hooked and serrated bill. A third eyelid, or nictating membrane, protects the hooded merganser’s eyes from the water. Although small fish are the hooded merganser’s main food, it will also eat crayfish, frogs, snails, aquatic insects, aquatic plants and seeds.
Next week I plan to go back to the fish hatchery and see if any other hooded mergansers have joined this lone male. With luck, there will be a female for me to photograph.