123. THE GOOSANDER.
Merganser merganser, (LINNAEUS).*
Outer web of the primaries blackish; inner web drab, with a blackish tip. Axillaries and under tail-coverts pure white.
Margins of the bill furnished with saw like teeth.
No black band across the white of the folded wing.
MALE :—Head black, sharply defined from the white neck; sides of the body pure white.
FEMALE :—Head and neck chestnut-brown, sharply defined from the body-plumage; sides of the body grey, freckled with white.
VERNACULAR NAMES :—None known.
THE Goosander is a permanent resident in the Himalayas from Kashmir to Assam ; and a not uncommon winter visitor to the plains of the northern part of the Empire.
This Duck has been observed in so many localities in the plains that it is unnecessary to trace its distribution in any great detail, and I propose to indicate only a few points which may be considered, so far as we know at present, its southern limits.
The bird, said to be of this species, which was procured by Mr. E. H. Aitken in the Bombay harbour, from the fact that it was found on salt water, was presumably a Red-breasted Merganser. Omitting Bombay, therefore, from consideration, and commencing on the west, we find this bird recorded from Dera Ismail Khan and next from Ajmere. In the Central Provinces it has been obtained as far south as Raipur and Sambulpur. It is fairly common in Chutia Nagpur as far down as Singbhum, and it has been observed in Bengal at Bancura and Bardwan, not very far north of Calcutta. This species is found throughout Assam and the mountain streams of the ranges of hills extending to Sylhet and Cachar, and it is very abundant in the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy river from Sinbo to Myitkyina.
In the Himalayas this species is found in summer at elevations above 10,000 feet, In winter it comes down to below 2,000 feet, and no doubt most of the birds scatter themselves over the plains.
The Goosander occurs over the whole continent of Europe and a great part of the continent of Asia. In summer this species is found within the Arctic circle. In winter it moves down to Southern and Central Europe and rarely to north-west Africa. It occurs at that season in China and Japan. In Central Asia and the Himalayas it appears to be more or less of a constant resident, moving vertically according to season, or migrating short distances only, as from the Himalayas, for instance, to the neighbouring plains of India.
In the plains, the Goosander arrives about the end of November and leaves in March.
The Goosander is a common bird in the Upper Irrawaddy, and occurs in small parties of from two or three to six. Owing to my being obliged to travel about in steamers, I never succeeded in shooting one of these birds, but Commander A. C. Yorstoun kindly procured one and sent me the skin for identification. These birds are by no means very wild, but they generally keep out of gun-range. They frequent the clearest parts of the river, where the current is strong and the water flows over a pebbly bottom. I have never seen them near mud and weeds, and I believe that they eat nothing but fish. They dive incessantly and come up in the most unexpected places. They dive both up and down stream and remain a very considerable time under water. Frequently they sit fairly high on the water, but they possess, the power of submerging the body, and when alarmed or wounded, or swimming up-stream, little more than the head and neck is visible above water. From the backward position of the legs of this Duck, it might be imagined that it could hardly walk, but Mr. Finn assures us that the Goosander walks as well as most Ducks. The cry of this species is usually a harsh croak, but Mr. Booth describes the note of the female and young birds as a low plaintive whistle. The flesh of the Goosander, as might be expected, is remarkably rank and is not fit for the table.
The Goosander is almost invariably found in fresh waters, and it is only in very severe frosty weather that it goes to sea. It has a preference for clear water flowing over pebbles and rocks, and it is seldom found far from forest.
I reproduce the following remarks on the Goosander from Mr. E. T. Booth's " Rough Notes " :—" An adult female with her half-fledged brood resting quietly in the bright sunshine on the unruffled surface of one of the larger lochs, presents a sight that would doubtless prove puzzling to one unacquainted with the habits of these singular birds. The female, ever on the alert for the first signs of danger, floats motionless with her head drawn back and beak resting on the feathers of the breast, the youngsters by whom she is surrounded appearing to vary in colour from a creamy salmon to a dull slate. One moment half or three-fourths of the brood show up the former conspicuous tint, while shortly after a transformation takes place and the colours are reversed. A glance through a strong binocular at once solves the mystery, and reveals the half-fledged juveniles spreading themselves out to enjoy the warmth of the sun. From time to time a portion of the brood turn over on their backs, remaining often in this position for several seconds ; the next minute a bird or two may be seen, each with one foot flapping in the air and paddling slowly round with the other; while engaged in these antics the bright colours of the underpart are clearly exposed to view. . . .
" Throughout the districts in which I met with Goosanders during the breeding season, the females appeared in some instances to resort to situations for nesting purposes at a considerable elevation on the hills. A cavity in a large and partially decayed birch was pointed out by a keeper as the spot from which some eggs (previously seen in his possession) had been taken. The old and weather-beaten stump was on the outskirts of a thicket of birch, fir, and alder, stretching from a swamp up a steep brae, and within a mile of a loch on which I have repeatedly watched two or three broods. The tree was carefully examined, and I noticed that down from the breast of the bird was still clinging to the rotten wood ; the general appearance also of the rubbish in the hollow left little doubt as to the truth of the statement. . . .
" Goosanders are blessed with a strong, healthy appetite, their visits at times proving exceedingly distasteful to the custodians of lakes and rivers. When wounded or alarmed, I have occasionally remarked that an immense quantity of fish was thrown up. After a shot with a, punt-gun, some winters back, on Heigham Sounds, in the east of Norfolk, at a number of these birds sitting with other fowl at the edge of a wake on the ice, scores of small rudd and roach were discovered lying on the surface where the flock had been resting. On the upper waters of the Lyon, in Perthshire, while concealed among the alders on the bank of the river, I watched, at the distance of only a few yards, eight or ten immature birds diving for food in the shallows among some large stones. At last the party appeared satisfied, and paddled slowly to some ledges of rock, apparently with the intention of landing, when, offering a good chance, five were stopped with the two barrels. The quantity of trout, all perfectly fresh, that were shaken from their throats would have more than half filled a moderately sized fish-creel.
" When unmolested this species is by no means shy; in many of the Highland glens I have seen them resting on the stones by the river-side, within a short distance of the road, paying little or no attention to the traffic."
The nest of the Goosander has not yet been taken in the Himalayas, and we owe all we know regarding the breeding of this bird to European writers. Mr. Robert Read, waiting to Dr. Sharpe, says :—" A nest which I found in Perthshire was in the head of a hollow wych-elm in a steep wood sloping down to a large freshwater loch. It contained twelve eggs of a buffish tint, the last laid being much paler than the others. It consisted simply of a mass of down of a pale lavender-colour, almost white, with which was mixed up a lot of chips and fine particles of rotten wood."
Mr. Seebohm writes :—" The favourite nesting-place of the Goosander is in a hollow tree-trunk ; but in localities where such sites are not plentiful, it shows considerable fertility of resource and capability of adaptation to circumstances in choosing the best substitute. On these occasions, however, it often displays more wit than wisdom. As the House-Martin has discovered that under the eaves of a roof a better shelter for its nest is to be found than under an overhanging cliff, so the Goosander immediately avails itself of the wooden boxes which the Finns fasten up in the trees to tempt them, These boxes, or " holkar," are made with a trap-door behind, so that the peasant may daily rob the nest, and thus make the too-confiding bird lay a score or more eggs before the wary man thinks it prudent to cease his depredations, and allow the Goosander to sit upon the rest for fear of spoiling his next year's harvest. If these boxes be not provided, and no hollow trees are available, the Goosander finds a hole under a rock or a cleft in the cliff, and has been known to utilise the old nest of a crow or bird of prey in a tree or the top of a pollard willow."
The Goosander commences to build its nest as early as the end of April, and eggs may be found up to the middle of June. The eggs are eight to twelve in number. Most of the eggs are perfect ellipses, rather elongated; a few have one end rather more pointed than the other. The shell is smooth and fairly glossy. In colour the eggs are a warm creamy buff. They measure from 2.5 to 2.9 in length, and from 1.8 to 1.9 in breadth.
The adult male has the whole head, crest and upper neck, glossy black. The lower neck, the upper part of the mantle, the whole lower plumage, sides of the body, axillaries and under wing-coverts are white, tinged with salmon or pink during life. The thighs and the sides of the. rump are white, vermiculated with grey.
The lower part of the mantle and the upper back, together with the long inner scapulars, are deep black. The lower back, the rump and the upper tail-coverts are ashy grey with dark shafts. The tail-feathers are ashy brown with black shafts. The winglet, or small quills on the edge of the wing, are black. The upper wing-coverts along the edge of the wing, and those next the white scapulars, are grey mottled with black. The remaining upper wing-coverts are pure white; the larger, lower series with concealed black bases. The primaries have the inner web drab, its tip and the whole outer web dark brown or blackish. The first four secondaries have the outer web black, the inner brown. The remaining short secondaries are wholly white. The long inner secondaries are white with a black margin, the last one with the inner web almost entirely black. The two innermost secondaries are uniformly brown.
The male in post-nuptial plumage resembles the female, but has traces of a black ring round the neck and the normal white wing of the winter plumage.
The adult female has the chin and throat white tinged with rufous. With this exception, the whole head, the crest and. the neck are chestnut-brown, the crown somewhat darker and tinged with grey. The whole upper plumage, the tail, the first and second series of upper wing-coverts, and the scapulars are grey, each feather with a black shaft. The whole lower plumage is white; the sides of the breast and of the body more or less grey, freckled in places with white. The under wing-coverts and the axillaries are white. The last series of the upper wing-coverts are white with concealed ashy brown bases. The primaries and the outer secondaries resemble those of the male, and there is the same white speculum. The inner long secondaries are ashy grey with dark brown margins.
Ducklings change into a plumage very closely resembling that of the adult female, and the crest seems to be fully developed from the very first.
Young males commence to acquire the adult plumage about February, and the change goes on throughout the spring. The parts first affected are the back and the throat, which turn black by a change of colour in the feather. The wings probably remain unaltered till the autumn moult.
The male is considerably larger than the female. Male: length about 26; wing 11 1/2; tail about 5. Female: length about 24; wing 10 1/2; tail 4 1/2. In both sexes, the bill is vermilion or deep red, with the nail blackish. The irides vary from brown to deep red. The legs and feet are red. Weight up to 3 1/4 lb.
Merganser castor and Merganser comatas of the British Museum Catalogue.