April 3, 2017

The lesser known New Hampshire heralds of spring

By Eric D'Aleo

April proclaims the beginning of spring on the calendar but is not always evident here in New Hampshire. Although southern New England may have green shoots poking through the soil and the hint of warm temperatures, further north there may still be snow on the ground and ice on ponds and lakes. However, there are still signs of spring. One I look for is the return of two small diving ducks: the hooded merganser and the common goldeneye.

The hooded merganser is a small but striking duck. Males have high contrast markings of black and white on their head, back, and chest, a brown scalloping pattern along its sides, a bright golden eye, and a slender black bill. Females are more subdued in their coloration, consisting mainly of browns and tans, with a red eye, and yellow bill similar in appearance to the male’s bill. Both males and females have a high crest on their head that looks like a Mohawk and can be raised and lowered at will. This species of duck prefers to feed in ponds and quiet waters of lakes and rivers. Once the ice opens up to reveal the water the mergansers return shortly afterwards. I have spotted them on the Squam River in Ashland during winter thaws only to disappear when it gets cold again and the ice reforms. Yet by March and April, the temperatures are warm enough to keep a permanent channel of water open, although the shoreline may still have ice. Then hooded mergansers are seen in pairs or small flocks as the males begin courting the females with their white, sail-like crests raised. Occasionally a male will make a low, gravely, groaning call advertising his fitness and interest in breeding. These small ducks also often dive beneath the surface in search for crayfish, aquatic insects, tadpoles, snails, and other mollusks on the river bottom.

Common Goldeneyes may also be seen briefly at this time as they pause on their spring migration north. The male has a black head with a white cheek spot next to its bill and a black back and tail. The chest and sides of the bird are white, while the female has a brown head with a gray body and wings. Both sexes have a bright yellow eye. These birds spend the winter along the New Hampshire coast and on large inland lakes or rivers where the water remains open. The goldeneye, like the hooded merganser, is a diving duck, using its back feet to propel it underwater. The diet of the goldeneye is similar to the hooded merganser, consisting of crayfish, mollusks, aquatic insects, and fish eggs on aquatic vegetation. Both species are very wary and best observed from a distance with binoculars.

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