Common Mergansers
Tracks and Signs


Mergus merganser


Common Merganser Tracks

Track Size: 2 5/8 - 2 15/16 in. L x 2.5 - 3 in. W


Natural History of Common Mergansers

These birds prefer fresh water and are seldom found near salt water.

The male has a dark green head that appears almost black. The female has a crest on her head and a white throat. Both have a thin, red, hooked bill with sharp teeth along the edges. These teeth help them catch their swimming prey. The teeth also help them keep a grip on slippery fish.

                            mergansers photo by Kim A. Cabrera

merganser dance

Mergansers dive underwater to catch fish, their preferred prey. They can swim well and quickly pursue prey underwater. Mergansers also eat aquatic insects.

The call is a low, short quack.

They build their nests on the ground or in crevices of trees. Mergansers are commonly seen flying along some river canyons. They sometimes skim low over the water, usually in pairs. White wing patches are visible when they are in flight. Mergansers prefer open water.

The webbing on their feet sometimes shows in the tracks.

mergansers in water
merganser tracks in sand. Photo copyright
                          Kim A. Cabrera 2009.

These fine merganser tracks even show the webbing on the feet. The ruler is six inches and is provided for a size comparison. Merganser tracks are often found directly at the water's edge. They commonly rest right along the shore in the late evening. Mergansers prefer sunny river banks. Their tracks are duck-like. The webbing between the toes helps them swim and chase their prey. They eat fish and any aquatic invertebrates they can find. Mergansers are frequently seen in the evening, heads underwater, rapidly chasing their prey, changing directions swiftly. This is an amazing process to watch. It looks like a feeding frenzy when there is a large group of mergansers churning up the water, chasing prey.

merganser tracks
A pair of merganser tracks in sand along the Eel River. Right track on the right, left track on the left.
These two tracks both show the hallux well. This is toe 1, the one facing backward. It sometimes does not leave an imprint in tracks, but these are really clear tracks with all details.
merganser track

The beautiful right print of a merganser in sand. The toe that faces backward is called the hallux. Webbing is visible in this track. The outer two toes tend to curve inward on webbed bird feet, including those of ducks and gulls.

merganser tracks in mud
Merganser trails found along the Eel River in northern California.
merganser trails
Several merganser trails are shown walking toward the camera.
male merganser breeding form. Photo
                          copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2009.

This is the male merganser in breeding plumage. This striking color is visible from afar. The female's more subdued color helps her blend into the environment. This may be because she needs to be able to hide better when she has a nest full of eggs to protect.

female merganser resting. Photo copyright
                          Kim A. Cabrera 2009.
This female merganser was resting on a sunny shore in late evening.
                          stretching wings. Photo copyright Kim A.
                          Cabrera 2009.

When she stood up, she stretched out, then went into the water. Apparently birds enjoy a good muscle stretch too!

merganser breeding
                          form. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2009.
A very colorful make merganser in breeding plumage. They are quite attractive birds.
                          breeding pair. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera

This merganser couple was doing a sort of mating dance. The male swam in circles around the female at least three times while I watched.

merganser breeding
                          pair. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2009.
The female ducked her head underwater and remained there as the male circled. They they mated.
                          breeding pair. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera
The male merganser had a grip on the tuft of feathers on top of the female's head.
                          breeding pair. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera

This breeding pair of mergansers produced a substantial brood that spring and the young grew throughout the summer.

female merganser in Eel River
mating pair of mergansers
pair of mergansers
Mergansers taking
                          off. Photo copoyright Kim A. Cabrera 2009.
Take-off of a group of mergansers. They had been resting on shore and were disturbed by a human.
Mergansers taking
                          off. Photo copoyright Kim A. Cabrera 2009.
Merganser group taking flight all together.

Three baby mergansers follow their
                            mother in the Eel River. Photo copyright by
                            Kim A. Cabrera. 2007.

A family of mergansers


Merganser and young. Photo copyright by
                            Kim A. Cabrera.

Mother merganser and her young.


Mergansers in the Eel River. Photo
                            copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

Pair of mergansers in the Eel River.


Mergansers on shore. Photo copyright by
                            Kim A. Cabrera 2006.

Mergansers on the edge of the river. The males are in their breeding plumage.


Mergansers on shore. Photo copyright by
                            Kim A. Cabrera 2006.

A group of mergansers getting warm in the sun.


Mergansers swim past a turkey vulture
                            on shore. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera

Group of mergansers swims past a turkey vulture on the river bar.


Merganser showing breeding plumage.
                            Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

Male merganser is breeding plumage.


Three mergansers resting on a rock.
                            Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Three mergansers were resting on this rock in the middle of the river. When I approached, they jumped off.


Click for video clip of flying mergansers along the Eel River in Humboldt County, California.


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Personal Notes on Common Mergansers



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Updated: March 25, 2018..