124. THE RED-BREASTED MERGANSER.
Merganser serrator, (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.
With one or with two black bands across the white of the folded wing.
MALE :—Head black, sharply denned from the white neck; two black bands across the white of the wing; sides of the body vermiculated with black.
FEMALE :—Head and neck more or less rufous, not sharply defined from the body-plumage; one black band across the white of the wing; sides of the body brown, margined with grey.
VERNACULAR NAMES :—None known.
THERE are only two properly authenticated instances known of the occurrence of the Red-breasted Merganser within the limits of the Indian Empire. The first specimen was shot by Colonel Yerbury in the Karachi harbour, and the wings of this bird are now in the British Museum. The second specimen is in the Indian Museum, Calcutta, and we are informed by Mr. F. Finn that this bird was obtained in the Calcutta market. It must, therefore, have been caught somewhere in Bengal.
There is no reason to think that the Red-breasted Merganser is an excessively rare bird in India, but being entirely a sea-coast species, it is, no doubt, seldom observed.
The Merganser which was supposed, by an error, to have been shot by Captain E. Bishop at Manora Point, Karachi, was in reality shot outside our limits. Captain Bishop, writing to Mr. Cumming on February 21st, 1890, says:—"The Merganser presented by me to the Karachi Museum was shot at Charbar, Mekran Coast, and not at Karachi, as stated in Mr. Murray's work."
The bird of this group which Mr. E. H. Aitken obtained in the month of December in the Bombay harbour, from the fact of its being found on the sea-coast, was most probably of the present species, and not a Goosander. It was an immature bird, and the determination of these birds, when young, was not such an easy matter some years ago as it is now.
The Red-breasted Merganser ranges all over the northern hemisphere, being found in summer from the 50th degree of north latitude up to, and within, the Arctic circle. In winter it is found in Southern Europe, and a considerable portion of Southern Asia from the Black and Caspian Seas to China and Japan, and it occurs at this season in the greater part of the United States of America.
The Red-breasted Merganser at the breeding season frequents fresh-water lakes and rivers which are not very distant from the sea; but at other times it is essentially a salt-water bird, being almost invariably found on the sea-coast and in the estuaries of rivers. It prefers those parts of the coast which are rocky.
This species is not usually seen in large flocks, except in winter. At other times it is found in small companies, or even in couples. Its habits do not differ in any important respect from those of the Goosander, but, being a sea-coast bird, it appears to find a good deal of its food among the sea-weed. As a rule the flesh of this species is as unpalatable as that of the Goosander, but at times it is said to be free from any fishy flavour.
These birds have a quick and powerful flight, but they rise from the water with a considerable splash and generally fly low. They possess the power, like the Goosander, of sinking the body in the water at will, till only the head and neck are visible.
The following extracts will, I trust, enable my readers to form a good idea of the general habits of this species in Europe.
Writing of this species in his " Bird-Life of the Borders," Mr. Abel Chapman says :—" Exquisitely graceful in form and plumage, it is yet so wholly useless when killed, that no professional fowler would waste a charge of powder and shot over them. The Mergansers are, nevertheless, the most timid, wild, and utterly inaccessible of all the wild birds of the sea. So keen and alert is their vision, and so hateful the human race, that they will not, wittingly, allow the presence of a punt on the same square mile of sea as themselves; it is, in fact, often ludicrous to observe the immense distances at which their almost irrational timidity bids them decamp. Spending the night at sea, they enter the estuaries at dawn, and for the period of daylight succeed in setting at naught all the arts and stratagems of man —to them indeed, and to the Golden-eyes, belongs alone of all their watchful tribe the credit of out-manoeuvring and nullifying the most elaborate devices of their archenemy. They systematically enter waters which are as free and open to punts as to themselves, remain there for their own purposes all day, and, evading every artifice to outwit them, leave again at night for the open sea, without losing the number of their mess. Of course, in punting year after year, a stray chance does turn up at intervals to work in a successful shot, but as a rule Mergansers and Golden-eyes are more than a match for the most skilful fowler that ever went afloat.
" The only shots I have known at Mergansers from a punt have occurred either when they are caught sunning themselves round a bend in a curving sand-bank—this is a habit they often indulge in at midday, when a dozen may often be seen basking together—or in a narrow ' gut' where a punt can creep up unseen. They rarely, however, trust themselves in such dangerous spots, and if they should happen to find themselves hemmed in, in a cul de sac, will attempt to dive back past the punt rather than fly over ' dry' land (or what Mergansers may regard as such). They feed entirely on shrimps and small fish, and are quite uneatable. There are, however, few more beautiful objects than a newly-killed Merganser drake. As he lies on the fore-deck—the weird, half-uncanny expression in his blood-red eye still undimmed; the slim, snake-like neck and glossy head, adorned with its long double crest—one-half standing straight out backwards, like the ' toppin' of a Peewit, the other pointing downwards toward the back (not pendent, as invariably represented in books); then the lovely but evanescent salmon hues which tinge his breast—all these points, together with the bold and brightly contrasted plumage, combine to form as beautiful an object as any that Nature has produced."
Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey quite corroborates this account of the wariness of the Merganser. He says :—" Of all wildfowl, except perhaps Golden-eyes, they are the most restless and wary; never quiet, always swimming, diving, and flying, and to no apparent end. I never yet saw one at rest with head down, and bill tucked under the wing. They are ever on the look-out, and though there may be hundreds on all sides, they cannot be approached within a long shot, without the best of luck and care. Any fowler who can now and then push his punt within shot of these birds may rest assured that he is most favourably equipped for shooting. It is the best of practice for a beginner. He will be surprised how tame Duck and Wigeon will afterwards appear. All Mergansers, from their piscivorous habits, are unfit for food, but offer from time to time such tempting shots that it is not in mortal to pass them by."
Dr. Saxby, referring to the nesting habits of the Red-breasted Merganser in Shetland, says :—" Although they often lay amongst long grass, they seem to prefer the shelter of a roof of some kind, and thus it is that the eggs are most commonly found under rocks, in rabbit-burrows, and even in crevices in old walls ; but, whatever may be the situation chosen, the nest always consists of a hollow scraped in the ground, and lined to a greater or less extent with down, feathers and dead plants, the amount of material being increased as incubation proceeds."
In addition to the sites mentioned above, this species is said to breed also in holes of trees like the Goosander.
The Red-breasted Merganser nests in May or June, and lays as many as twelve eggs. The eggs are not unlike those of the Goosander, but are smaller and generally of a darker creamy-buff colour, often slightly tinged with green. They measure from 2.4 to 2.8 in length, and from 1.6 to 1.85 in breadth.
The adult male has the whole head, crest and upper neck deep, glossy black. The lower neck is white, with a black longitudinal band on the hinder part. The chest and the sides of the mantle are rufous, streaked with black. The lower plumage is pure white, except the sides of the body, which are vermiculated with black. The axillaries are white, and the under wing-coverts largely so. The middle portion of the lower hindneck, the mantle, the back and all the long inner scapulars are deep black. The lateral feathers of the back, near the junction of the wing with the body, are much lengthened and have the central portion pure white. The outer scapulars are white. The rump and the upper tail-coverts are vermiculated with ashy grey and black. The tail is ashy brown. The first series of upper wing-coverts, along the margin of the wing, is brown; the second or middle series is white. The third series is white, with partly concealed black bases, the portion visible forming a black band across the white of the wing. The primaries are drab on the inner web, the tip black ; the outer webs are entirely black. The first four secondaries are blackish, with some white at the tip of the inner web. The next six are white, the base of the outer web black, the base of the inner web brown. The visible portions of the black bases of the outer webs form a second black bar across the wing. The next secondaries are white, margined with black ; the innermost secondaries are plain brown.
With regard to the post-nuptial plumage of the male, Seebohm remarks :—" Males in moulting-dress closely resemble males in first plumage, but have the dark markings on the breast and flanks slate-grey instead of brown." Yarrell says that " old males from early spring till their autumn moult begins, lose the rich glossy green of the head and neck, which degenerates into an obscure brown, while the fine chestnut colour of the breast entirely disappears." Lastly I quote from Mr. Dresser. He writes :—" In the plumage that the male of this species assumes for a short time during the summer, it resembles the female, but is distinguishable by its larger size, the different colour of the abdomen and of the scapulars." These descriptions are conflicting, and I regret that I have seen no specimens of this Merganser, in post-nuptial plumage, to enable me to clear up the question.
The adult female has the crown and the crest deep reddish brown; the sides of the head and of the neck, chestnut mottled with white; the chin, throat and foreneck, white mottled with chestnut; the hindneck reddish brown. The whole upper plumage, the first and second series of upper wing-coverts and the scapulars are dark brown, each feather margined with ashy. The tail is ashy brown. The lower plumage is white, the sides of the body brown with greyish margins. The axillaries are white; the under wing-coverts nearly entirely so. The outer feathers of the larger series of upper wing-coverts are white, tipped with black, and with blackish bases, partially concealed. The visible portions of the bases of these coverts do not, however, form a black bar across the wing, as in the male, owing to the coverts immediately above them being brown, not white. The primaries and the outer secondaries resemble those of the male, the concealed black bases of the latter forming, as in the male, a broad black bar across the wing, below the white wing-coverts. All the inner, long secondaries are dark brown.
Ducklings change from down into a plumage resembling that of the female. The young drakes do not appear to assume the full plumage of the old drake until the second autumn.
Male : length about 25 ; wing 9 1/2 ; tail 3 1/2. Female: length about 22 1/2; wing 8 1/2; tail 3 1/4. The male has the bill deep vermilion, with the ridge dusky. The legs are also deep vermilion. In the female the bill and legs are paler red. In both sexes the irides are blood-red ; in the young they are yellow. The weight is said to run up to about 2 lb.