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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Motley Melange: A Merlin amidst Mergansers

[Belle Isle, Detroit River. MI. Feb 2015]

The Detroit River is more of a strait than a river -- measuring a total of only 28 miles in length. In this short stretch, the river connects two massive bodies of water -- Lake St. Clair in the North with Lake Erie to the South; and, in doing so, it separates Michigan from Ontario and thus also marks the international border between the US and Canada.

Besides its enormous importance as a critical conduit for commercial transportation, the Detroit River's other notable feature is that it includes several small islands in its 28-mile run -- the chief of these are Belle Isle and Grosse Ile. Both islands offer excellent vantage points for viewing waterfowl; especially in winter as this is one of the few spaces where water is not frozen over thanks to icebreaking operations conducted by the US Coast Guard.

An exceptionally cold and grey winter morning -- the kind that questions the climatic sanity of  anyone residing North of Interstate 10 -- afforded the opportunity to observe expected -- yet nevertheless enchanting --  species around Belle Isle consisting mainly of waterfowl but also including a surprise showing from an iconic falcon:
  • Common Merganser
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Merlin
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Bufflehead
  • Canvasback
  • Redhead
We start with (Common Merganser abbreviated using the trinomial shortform as shorthand for bird names in this post):
Common Merganser (female) seen in the Detroit River
The com.m is a typical merganser with a serrated bill, long, sleek body and shaggy head. The female can oft be confused with the somewhat similar looking Red-breasted Merganser ( in basic plumage.

Common Merganser (male) seen in the Detroit River
The com.m is found in both the Old and New Worlds unlike our next merganser -- Hooded Merganser (Ana.hoo.m) which is exclusive to North America:

Hooded Merganser seen in the Detroit River
Like the com.m, hoo.m is also a saw-billed diving duck; in the winter, they are widely distributed even as far South as in the canals of Naples, FL!

Belle Isle is not a big island, only 1 and a half square miles. There are several pull-offs on the short perimeter road that invite the visitor to stop and explore further. It was at one of these stops while scouting for waterfowl that a striking falcon with bold markings on the breast was spied perched on a stark, bare branch:

Merlin seen at Belle Isle
Fal.mer is a handsome raptor that is found across the US and Eurasia. It is a small falcon -- larger than a Kestrel but smaller than the Peregrine. This particular individual is an imposing female with a brown rather than grey back (as in most raptors, the female outsizes the male).

Merlin seen on Belle Isle
The Merlin is a formidable hunter and is known to favor preying on small birds such as sparrows, peeps, and waxwings.

The Seaducks (i.e., the sub-family Merginae) comprises more than just the mergansers -- and a nice assortment of these distinctive ducks were also observed; such as:

Common Goldeneye (

Common Goldeneye drakes in the Detroit River
Common Goldeneye (females) in the Detroit River

And, Bufflehead (Ana.buf):

Finally, a couple of diving ducks; starting with our largest duck:

Canvasback (Ana.can.b):

and, Redhead (

It is an undeniable fact of birding that many, initially optimistic, chases for a desired target species conclude rather miserably in a spectacularly disappointing "no show".  However, it must not be overlooked that, in a compensatory act of redemption, the converse is equally true -- for, is there any birder who has not had their routine and familiar birding excursion blissfully interrupted with the sighting of an unexpected yet welcome species wholly out of the blue? 

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