They have once again returned to the Poudre River—the mergansers. It’s a sure sign that spring is headed our way in northern Colorado.
If you believe in weather lore—how wild animals might predict the coming weather—the time of their arrival may speak volumes about the next six months.
I started tracking the mergansers about three decades ago, and I’ve noticed how the timing of their arrival seems to predict the amounts of rain for the coming summer: a mid-March arrival may mean a summer of average rainfall; earlier than mid-March, more rain, and thus a wet summer; and later than mid-March, less rain, an abnormally dry summer.
In 2000, for example, when the mergansers arrived extremely late—six weeks beyond their average mid-March arrival—northern Colorado had its worst-recorded summer drought.
Back then, the mergansers may have mysteriously and magically known that dry times awaited them at their summer home, so they continued hanging out wherever it was that they wintered over. Or they may have taken a short vacation to some other wet area before journeying to the Poudre.
A miracle: There are so few of them—a tiny, tiny handful of these members of the duck family—and they blend in so well with the river’s whitewater rapids, sun-reflecting ripples and deep greenish-blue pools.
Given those conditions, it’s a miracle the mergansers are noticed at all.
But they are. Residents living along the river where it passes through the mountainous lower Poudre Canyon 20 miles northwest of Fort Collins, Colo., keep watch for them.
This year, in mid-March, Bill Sears and Edie Palmer were the early ones to spot the mergansers. The news was relayed to Steve Den, a Poudre Park resident and retired Poudre School District teacher who writes a popular weekly Mountain Messages blog about local Poudre people and things. Steve alerted others by email.
Usually, the mergansers arrive almost with the uncanny accuracy of the famous swallows flying back to Mission San Juan Capistrano. As a rule, as many as 34,000 swallows return March 19 to the California mission. Their annual return from wintering over in Argentina is considered a religious miracle by some observers since the arrival takes place on St. Joseph’s Day.
Things are a bit different along the Poudre. The merganser population is fragile. Usually only six or seven mergansers show up. In some years, there may be as many as a dozen.
Few people even know about the mergansers. The birds are tough to spot.
Lazily drifting: The males are 23 to 28 inches long, about the length of two shoes heel-to-toe of a big-footed man. The heads of male mergansers are black with an iridescent green gloss. Their backs are coal-black. They have thin orange bills and—here’s the great identifier—lower sides of snowy-white feathers. Their wings are partly white and partly black.
Females are about the same size as males, with the same bill color. But their heads are rusty red with feathers of a mod ragged style. Females have a grayish brown body and off-white chest feathers.
The ladies blend in with the river’s shifting shadows. Males are easier to spot because of their white feathers. The males resemble big, white-bottom bobbers as they float with the current.
If you’re quick-eyed and lucky, you may see them lazily drifting on the river in early mornings. In the afternoons, they often tend to hide out—or, as I would, nap—in riverside foliage. They come out again before dusk.
Chances are you’ll spy a male, thanks to his bobbing whiteness. Look closely. There’s likely to be a female with him, but she’ll blend in with the water and you might not see her unless you specifically search for her.
The mergansers hang out for a while—resting up, feeding, courting, gossiping—along a 4-mile stretch of the river that goes from Picnic Rock, the first picnic area just inside the canyon, to the first bridge that spans the river.
Some of the river curves away from the road (Colorado Highway 14), requiring an easy bit of footwork to get to the stream. But there are some long rippling stretches and still pools where mergansers can be seen from the adjacent road.
Once they are rested and mated up, the mergansers head upriver to nest and hatch the next generation.
Fancy drinks, sunglasses: The mergansers on the Poudre are Common Mergansers. Colorado also has Red-breasted Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers, but they live in other areas. The famous bird artist, John James Audubon, went on a quest in about 1820 to paint every bird in America. The Common Merganser was one of his subjects; he called it a Buff-breasted Merganser.
Some mergansers winter on Colorado Front Range lakes where the weather is mild enough for ice to be sparse. Others head to the warm climates of Mexico or Central America, where I’m sure they wear sunglasses and sip fancy drinks with tiny paper umbrellas stuck in them.
That’s what I’d do if I were a merganser, of course, naturally.
Learn more about common mergansers:
Watch for the next poudreriver.org blog on March 31: Merganser love on the Poudre
To reach Gary Kimsey: GaryKimsey@yahoo.com. Cell: 970.689.2512.