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Everything’s Duckie on Grenell

We’ve had a merganser nesting in the white pine outside our bedroom window every season for about four years now. We usually see her early in the morning just as we are getting up. She flies down from her nest and spends some time in the water just off our north rock. After we removed a merganser from our wood-burning stove last May (see Goldilocks? Is that you?, June 2013) I was afraid we had somehow disrupted her nesting cycle. That is, if it were the same merganser.

But we saw her again the next day, so I figured it was probably another merganser trying to nest in our chimney. I was very happy the morning of June 6 when at breakfast I saw mother merganser and nine tiny chicks swimming away from the island. They made it! One of these years, I’m going to be there for the whole jumping out of the nest thing. The nest is more than three stories off the ground.


I saw mother merganser on our north rock a few days later with all nine chicks tucked under her wings. She had kept them warm and safe all night, protected from the fox we have on the island and the occasional mink. I saw her get up and stretch, then get in the water. The chicks stretched too, flapping their stubby wings. They made a few false attempts to get in the water. Getting in, then getting out several times. Mom sat in the water patiently waiting and some magic signal was given and they all got in. The first one in got on her back. A few other chicks tried to climb aboard, but they were too big now for more than one to ride comfortably on her back.

A few days later I watched the young family feeding in our little cove. The chicks were eating surface bugs and mom was diving for her dinner. When she would surface, they would swarm her back until she would disappear under the surface again. Then they disappeared from our little point for a while. I didn’t see them for a few days.

About a week after the merganser and her brood left the nest, I sat up in bed and saw a duck-like bird fly down from the very same nest. What was that about? Why would the merganser return to the nest?

I checked the north rock and saw that it wasn’t the merganser…it was a goldeneye. Apparently, a goldeneye had taken up residence in the newly vacated merganser nest. I read online that this isn’t unusual. Sort of a duck timeshare type thing.

A week later, I woke to quite a ruckus going on outside my bedroom window. There was a large duck-like bird in the white pine and it wasn’t the goldeneye. It was a merganser that seemingly was quite distraught. Mergansers make a loud “grkkkkkk” sound. I imagine it was saying something like, “Who’s been sitting in my nest?” And I sort of chuckled at the irony of the merganser now upset that someone is in its nest. Goldilocks? Is that you—the sequel.

I went outside and watched from the dock. Soon the merganser was joined by two more mergansers. The three flew around our point Grrrrrkkkking loudly. About the third time around the goldeneye flew by and landed in the water off our north rock. The three mergansers flew off toward Murray Island. I sat and watched the goldeneye. After about a half hour in the water, she took off flew directly toward Murray Island then made a U-turn and flew back to the nest in the white pine outside our bedroom window.

The next morning when I woke up I was surprised to see not three, but five mergansers on our north rock. They were Grrrrrrkkkking up a storm. Was this part of some territorial dispute? Had the upset merganser brought back reinforcements? Had something happened to the chicks that hatched out a couple of weeks ago and this was the merganser who normally nested here, hoping to start a second brood to replace the one she lost?

As if to answer my last question, the merganser with nine chicks returned to the cove later that morning. She was starting to teach her young chicks to fish. They were so fun to watch torpedoing through the water in all directions.

I have no idea where the gang of mergansers came from, why they were there or where they went. They all had female coloring, but I’ve read the males only have different plumage while breeding. Perhaps this was a group of immature males. (They certainly behaved as such.)

Throughout the next week I caught sight of the young mergansers. They were getting so big. And getting good at catching fish.

I haven’t seen the goldeneye in a while. It’s been 17 days since I first saw her in the nest and I’m not sure if she could have laid and hatched out by now.

I’d seen a mother goldeneye with her tiny black chicks late in May. I saw her again this past week. Her chicks are almost as big as she is now!

Hoping soon to look out during breakfast and see mother goldeneye and her cute, fluffy black chicks swimming safely away. Better yet, I hope I will see them jump from the tree.

I’m sure the story is not over, but I am in the middle chapter of the wild and wet season of 2013. And that is just “duckie” with me.  

By Lynn McElfresh, Grenell Island

Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past three years from Lynn McElfresh’s musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees.  Recently she presented several articles about Grenell for its 100th Birthday.  See all of Lynn’s 55 articles here.

  • Miffed merganser on our north rock.

    Miffed merganser on our north rock.

  • First swim of the morning.

    First swim of the morning.

  • Chicks eating surface bugs.

    Chicks eating surface bugs.

  • Mother merganser teaching her chicks to fish.

    Mother merganser teaching her chicks to fish.

  • Getting bigger

    Getting bigger

  • Hey, Ma! Look what I caught!

    Hey, Ma! Look what I caught!

  • Goldeneye from earlier in the season

    Goldeneye from earlier in the season

  • Goldeneye’s chicks are almost as big as mom now.

    Goldeneye’s chicks are almost as big as mom now.

  • We also have a few mallard families around our little point.

    We also have a few mallard families around our little point.


Posted in: Nature
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Barbara Knott
Comment by: Barbara Knott ( )
Left at: 8:13 AM Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Loved your article and pics Lynn of the Mergansers. Although we're new to cottage country (McKellar Lake near Parry Sound) and to "birding", I recognized the Merganser duck photo as the bird we saw on our lake a few days ago. Now that I know a little about their preferred habitat, (I'd never thought of looking up into a tree for their nests), I will watch for it again from a different perspective and interest.
Thank you for sharing.
Lynn McElfresh
Comment by: Lynn McElfresh ( )
Left at: 1:18 PM Thursday, July 18, 2013
oops! The Mother duck with chicks under her wing is a mallard, not a merganser. Sorry!