Text and Photos by Peter Vankevich
If one were to choose a species as the most handsome duck in America, I would choose this one. The Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is the smallest and least common of the three merganser species found in North America. The other two are the Red-breasted Merganser and the Common Merganser. All three species appear in the region, with the Red-breasted most likely to be seen around Ocracoke from fall into winter and the Common Merganser is rare.
In eastern North Carolina, from fall into late March, Hooded Mergansers can most often be seen in shallow freshwater ponds, brackish bays, estuaries, and tidal creeks. The Lake Mattamuskeet and Pocosin regions of mainland Hyde County are better places to see them than Ocracoke which doesn’t have as much suitable habitat.
On wintering grounds, they often congregate in small flocks with several males and at least one female and will display courtship behaviors that includes fanning the crest, tipping, turning and pumping and an upward-stretch and wing-flap.
Males are identified by a spectacular large white crest located at the back of the head that may be prominently displayed or lowered. Other distinctive features include bright gold eyes, black head, brownish-black back, rusty sides and white chest bordered by black and white stripes. The adult female is brownish overall with a subtler reddish crest. From a distance, males may be confused with the more common small diving Bufflehead.
Mergansers are noted for having a long, serrated bill that is used to catch prey. A diving duck, they forage underwater for small fish, aquatic insects, frogs and crayfish.
This is the only merganser whose distribution is limited to North America. The breeding range covers suitable habitats of much of the eastern portions of North America into Canada and the Pacific Northwest and is most common around the Great Lakes region. Their preferred nesting habitat is forested wetlands that include swamps, beaver ponds and rivers.
Wintering range includes much of North America as far north as ice-free waters and down to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Hooded Merganser has some distinction as one of the few waterfowl species that nest in North Carolina, albeit in small numbers, breeding well inland, in the same habitats as Wood Ducks, primarily wooded ponds and lakes.
As with Buffleheads and Wood Ducks, they nest in tree cavities preferring heights from 10 to 15 feet above the ground. Like the Wood Duck, they will use artificial wood boxes. Between 10 to 12 eggs are usually laid. The newborns are precocial and within 24 hours after the eggs are hatched, the ducklings will jump to the ground and head for the water. The mother and ducklings will remain together for about 10 weeks. Males leave once incubation begins and do not assist in raising the young.
They take flight by running across water and once airborne have a rapid, ceaseless wing beat. When landing at a high speed, they extend that feet to ski across the water surface to a stop.
Predation of incubating females and eggs are mostly by black rat snakes as well as by raccoons and mink. Other egg predators are black bears, pine martens, European Starlings, Northern Flickers, Red-headed and Red-bellied woodpeckers. When a predator approaches, the female may perform a broken wing distraction similar to the Killdeer in order to lure the predator away.
Like most bird species, loss of habitats contributed to a decline in numbers. Due to their secretive nature and isolated nesting areas, accurate estimates of their population is difficult, though many believe their numbers are stable.
Best time to see: October into late March, not present in summer
Where: The sound, creeks and the small pond near the Hatteras ferry terminal.
Listen: Generally silent in winter but wings produce a whirring noise in flight
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
The Federal Duck Stamp Program began in 1934 by legislation signed by President Roosevelt. These annual stamps are federal licenses and are required for hunting migratory waterfowl. The purpose was to generate revenue designated exclusively for acquiring wetlands for what has become to be known as the National Wildlife Refuge System. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proudly points out that 98 cents of every dollar taken in is used for wetlands habitat acquisitions or leasing. Artists participate in a competition each year. The handsome Hooded Merganser has been featured three times, 1968, 1978 and 2005.