My recent spring trip to Mackinaw turned out to be winter visit. No one should expect the first weekend in April at the Straits to be like Daytona Beach, but three inches of snow and teen-degree weather was a bit extreme. Nothing looks quite so desolate as a summer town in winter. Expansive empty ferry boat lots were blanketed in un-tracked whiteness and the giant wiener atop the closed restaurant on the west edge of town was dusted in a fine coat of sugar. No one puts sugar on a hot dog or goes to Mackinaw in the winter unless they have a reason.
What, you may ask, was my reason? I was invited as a presenter at the first annual Mackinaw Straits Hawk Watch Festival. This is a newly developed spring hawk-watching site and the festival was intended as a coming out party of sorts. Well, the events themselves went very well and the attendance was terrific because the planning was impeccable (and everything was indoors). One of the hawk-watchers later told me on Saturday night that the actual hawk migration count that day was negative 14. “Yes, he said, “all the hawks were heading back south!” Oddly enough, one of those birds was a Black Vulture, which is a southern bird with no business being there. It apparently turned south upon encountering the bridge fee. The Turkey Vultures never warned him of that.
I spent my spare time making tire tracks across the ferry lot. Without interference from pesky tourists, I was able to drive my car right up to the edge of the seawall. Safe and warm inside the heated car compartment I was able to lean out the window and observe the congregation of waterfowl clustered in the blue-green waters of Lake Huron. The birds were fairly tolerant of my car because it was white and blended well into the spring, er…winter backdrop. The single Red-breasted Merganser swimming before me was a special treat.
Aptly called “Hairy Heads,” the raggedy plumed Red-breasted Mergansers sit squarely in the middle of the saw-billed clan. The males challenge the bold patterns of the smaller Hooded Mergansers and are close in size to the plainer Common Mergansers. I don’t see them nearly as often as these other two. When I do, I am reminded of the vivid portrait of this species executed by the artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes- an artist of near Audubon importance (see below). One of his specimens was drawn in late March 1909 at Monroe, MI, so naturally his painting is near and dear to my artist/naturalist heart.
Watching the bird cruise about the near shore beach, it appeared to be engaged in fishing but was, none-the-less, distracted. Repeatedly dipping his head below for an underwater view it often craned its neck as if looking for something and only dove under once or twice. As I clicked another shot, the fancy bird quickly revealed what was really on his mind. He performed a superb “salute-curtsy.”
That aptly named maneuver may sound like something Dick Button would say as part of his Olympic skating commentary, but it is actually a courtship move. It is intended to impress female Red-breasted Mergansers rather than a panel of judges. It was a 10 (although the Russian judge only gave it a 6). As the photo shows, the bird stuck his neck out at an angle, opened his mouth (thus highlighting the bright orange mouth lining), dipped his chest into the water, rose his rump up high, and folded his tail straight down. The magnificent crest was lowered in this case to streamline the salute – like a saber being thrust in to the air.
Now, I’ve never seen this move except in books or on videos and surprised to see it here for there were no females about. The bird was solitary, as in completely alone, and without anyone to impress except the freezing naturalist in the white car. The only conclusion I can draw is that this individual was practicing. His mind was on courtship and no doubt getting ready for the big show.
I know the action was not intended for me, but this singular maneuver did put me on notice. In spite of the snow, wind, and cold it was actually spring according to the calendar and the bio-clock. Soon enough the sugar will melt off the dog.