Bird Tales: A ferry ride provides the perfect opportunity for winter bird-watching

People often look at me curiously as I walk around the ferry cabin carrying binoculars around my neck and stopping to peer out windows. Once a ferry worker asked me what I was looking at. I offered her my binoculars and pointed so she could see for herself.

“Whoa,” she said, “I’ve never seen it so clearly, but I call that one the mohawk bird,” a suitable nickname for the red-breasted merganser, a large and colorful duck with a shaggy crest that looks like a wet punk hairdo. It is the most common of the three merganser species, also called “mergies,” found on Vashon in the winter.

In their breeding plumage winter through spring, male red-breasted mergansers have a reddish breast, black and white back, white neck collar, red eyes and a green head with a bright green crest. Like most ducks, the female is relatively drab. She has grayish body and reddish crest.

Red-breasted mergansers are often seen in small groups of four or five in the water around the ferry docks, Tramp Harbor and Quartermaster harbor. While dabbling ducks like wigeons and mallards comically tip themselves heads down and butts up to forage just below the surface, mergies are diving ducks that forage for fish while swimming underwater, using their feet or wings for propulsion and a very thin serrated orange bill to hold onto their slippery catch.

The second mergie species, named common merganser (although less common on Vashon than the other mergies), is slightly larger, thicker-billed and mostly white, but otherwise similar to red-breasted mergansers. They can occur singly and in small groups but are often found in large groups floating like avian rafts in Quartermaster Harbor.

Sometimes called “Cowboys of the Sea,” both red-breasted and common mergies often herd fish towards shallow water before plucking them with their long and toothy bills.

Last year I was leading a group of birders at Point Robinson as we watched a single common mergie paddling and splashing rapidly with both its feet and wings only 50 feet from where we stood on the rocky beach. It seemed to gallop across the surface like a cowboy with wings as spurs on a submerged horse! After chasing the fish furiously for about a minute, it finally herded the fish directly toward us at the water’s edge and nabbed it! We all looked at each other wide-eyed, taking in this outstanding performance at a private Point Robinson aquatic rodeo!

The hooded merganser, also called a “hoody,” is the smallest of the three species and the only one to breed on Vashon. The male has striking breeding plumage, with brownish-orange sides, white breast, black back with fine white stripes and white breast with two black spurs on each side. Its large and striking white and black crest can be raised and lowered like an oriental paper fan. It is mostly white when raised into a characteristic hammerhead shape and black with a white stripe when lowered. In winter, it occurs in small groups at many near-shore saltwater locations, as well as Fisher Pond, the Island Center Forest marsh and the many small and secluded ponds created by farmers as Vashon was settled.

In his book “The Birds of Vashon Island,” Ed Swan suggests that these birds probably did not breed here prior to the creation of these many ponds. This has likely helped to replace nesting habitat that was lost to the widespread clearing of forested wetlands throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Like wood ducks, hoodies nest in tree cavities or wood boxes, 10 to 50 feet above ground. Within a day after hatching, the young jump to the ground. After tumbling down and bouncing on the ground (ouch!), they head for the water to find their own food. The female leads them around to good feeding areas for a few weeks and then abandons them before they can fly. Isn’t that just ducky? Well, yes, I guess it is if you’re a duck!

To learn more about the unique winter waterfowl around Vashon, check out


Prepare yourself for regular close encounters with winter waterfowl from the ferry by checking out the beautiful Vashon Audubon poster with photos and descriptions of the birds, located at all ferry terminals to and from Vashon. But let’s keep all of this between you and me, OK? We don’t want any ferry officials to get any ideas about adding another surcharge for our enjoyment of the birds.

— Alan Huggins is a lifelong learner who enjoys birds and nature.

Christmas Bird Count

Conducted nationwide, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is the oldest and largest citizen science event in the world.

The Vashon-Maury Island Audubon Society invites all experienced birders to participate in the CBC on Sunday, Jan. 2. It’s an opportunity to spend a day in the field with other experienced birders and enhance your birding skills.

For more information or to participate, contact CBC organizer Sue Trevathan at 463-1484 or by e-mail at sue.trevathan@centurytel.net. To ensure adequate coverage, please let Sue know soon if you are going to participate.

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