Living Sanibel: Red-breasted Merganser
A good-sized diving duck, the red-breasted merganser is quite common and prefers the saltwater estuaries to lakes and ponds when in Florida. The female merganser can often be found in midwinter feeding in the tidal flows found in estuaries all along the coast. The male tends to prefer the offshore habitat to the back bays and estuaries and as a result is much harder to find.
Its annual migration takes the merganser to the far north all the way to Hudson Bay and the coast of Greenland. In the summer, the male merganser sports a black head and crest with iridescent, greenish overtones and a clear white band around the neck. This breeding plumage is almost never apparent while the bird is wintering in Florida.
One of the fastest flying ducks, it has been clocked at more than 100 miles per hour. An extremely adept swimmer, it feeds primarily on fish but has been known to eat shrimp and crabs as well. The merganser is equipped with a serrated mandible, which greatly enhances its ability to hold on to slippery fish.
The red-breasted merganser is primarily monogamous and a solitary ground nester. Predation occurs mostly in the breeding grounds from gulls, coyotes, foxes, hawks and owls. Because of the fishy flavor of its meat, the merganser is seldom a target of duck hunters.
A small waterbird, the pied-billed grebe is a fairly common sighting along Wildlife Drive in the “Ding” Darling refuge in midwinter. It seldom takes flight when threatened or approached, preferring instead to dive for cover. Although it swims and behaves like a duck, the grebe does not have webbed feet; instead each toe has lobes that flare out when paddling.
This bird is seldom found far from shore and prefers much shallower water than does the loon or boobie. It is an omnivore and opportunistic, consuming equal amounts of minnows, crustaceans, and vegetative matter, as well as marine insects. During the winter tourist season the tiny pied-billed grebe should be an easy addition to your Sanibel and Captiva life list. The name pied-billed refers to the multicolored bill, which develops a dark ring during breeding season. When wintering on the islands, however, the grebe will not display this ring.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.