Last week, a massive global event took place, and it didn’t involve COVID-19. It was an amazing effort by more than 30,000 people globally to celebrate the amazing diversity of life on the planet – bird life. Typically, groups of people participate in this annual event, but this year, it was limited to individuals. The beauty of it is that this is a citizen science effort that has always happened globally and that the infrastructure is set up to collaborate virtually. The event is World Migratory Bird Day ( and happened this year on May 9th and 10th. Volunteers record what they see and where and combine it through this network.

Citizen science means that anyone can participate from experts to kids just learning how to identify a bright red cardinal. The event has grown over the years and all the data isn’t in yet for this year, but last year, there were participants from over 170 different countries. In total, they recorded sightings of over 7,000 species – not a bad percentage of the 10,000 species out there.

Many birders focus on the more terrestrial species – the rare warblers that arrive in spring or the first red-winged blackbirds. But, there is a whole suite of birds that thrive out on the water. They may not be as bright and chirpy, more often wearing a combination of drab-colored black and white plumage and gronking or croaking, but if you look closely, some of these birds are among the most elegant of the avian class. Even the seagull has a way of looking majestic at times.

It is the sea ducks, however, that can be the most captivating and mysterious. At times, it can seem like you are merely looking at a raft of black floating blobs on the water, but a closer look reveals a great variety. One of my most recent favorites is the Common Merganser. Its messy hairdo gives it away as being a little different from the other sea ducks. At a time when we may all be letting our hair grow a little wild, there is a comfort in seeing such a coif in nature. This is true of the female only, however. She has the ruddy head with a messy crest sitting atop a slender white neck, chest and chin. The male has a more greenish head with a tidier crest. The exception is the teenage males who share the plumage of their mothers.

The merganser gets it name from the Latin mergus, which means “to dip” and anser, Latin for “goose.” That’s because it is a diving duck that gets it food from under the water. It has a long, straight, orangish-red bill that it uses to grab onto little fish, and its bill has tiny teeth to keep the slipperiest fish from getting away. While they float along the coast all year long, they often spend more of the wintertime in freshwater, reappearing along the Maine coast about now. They often hang out in floating flocks with other sea ducks including iconic black and white eiders, buffleheads with their striking white head patch and aptly named bright-eyed goldeneyes. When they fly, white wing patches on their broad wings that stretch out from their chunky bodies can help to identify them.

If you’re looking for them at this time of year, you might also spot a nest in a dead tree or a hole made by a woodpecker. They are often up quite high, though, so they can be hard to spot. When the chicks hatch, the mother protects them from fierce predators by flocking together with other moms. There can be multiple females with forty or more chicks (not exactly social distancing). They have a neat behavior when threatened by an eagle or a hawk where they appear to run on the surface of the water, causing a great commotion. You can learn all about Mergansers and many other birds as well as listen to their calls at Cornell’s All About Birds website ( A merganser’s call is something like a hoarse cackle.

Spring is a great time to be a backyard birder and there are myriad resources out there to get started. World Migratory Bird Day can be just spark to get started if you have a moment to check out the website and information there. There are links to many local land trusts and other organizations that have been encouraging people to get outside and learn about their natural environment this spring.

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