These guys redefine the term “skittish”.
On many occasions I’ve been to Herring Cove Beach, Cape Cod but almost exclusively off season. Depending on how far off season you arrive, at the main parking lot area there may be a plethora of RV’s outfitted for serious fishing or perhaps almost no one at all. Because it is a preserved national seashore area, for me the seminal charm is its raw natural landscape. Outbound on Route 6, as you go beyond the Shank Painter Road exit on your left and pass the right hand exit forRace Point Road, the landscape gradually loses the tenacious low evergreens and takes on a lower profile with beach plum, beach rose, beach grass for dune preservation and the ever present beach fence.
Should you pull into the parking lot to the right, the broad expanse of sand allows for clear visibility down to the waters edge and the open ocean beyond. Off to the right Race Point Lighthouse is visible. The careful observer, which is what a photographer should be, will often see a flock of duck type water birds with “wild spiked hairdos” generally 50-100 or more feet or more from the shoreline, swimming slowly and casually parallel to the shore. Of course you are curious, and with the nature photographers’ constant limitation of focal length (never enough) you attempt a closer look but you will soon disabuse yourself of the notion that you may casually, even stealthily ease on down to the shoreline for a closer vantage point. These birds brook no close approach and are indeed watching you like Rod Stewart.
As you whistle an innocuous tune, the nonthreatening nature of which these avian creatures and great singers of song are supposed to easily interpret, and move diagonally towards the waters edge at a shallow angle (not too fast now), first one and then another of your floating feathered friends angles almost exactly as much outward bound away from you and toward the distant horizon. Soon they’ve doubled the distance between shore and themselves, you and photographic opportunity. This all occurs with as much aplomb as can be lovingly ascribed to any species, unless of course you arrive at the dead run and followed by an overexcited pet pooch and toss a “Fido fetch me ball” wildly into the ocean. Meanwhile your shoulders and attitude droop as you realize your 400mm lens is just not gonna do the job.
So you assume the fallback position, which is actually supposed to be the primary position; observe, learn and enjoy the wonder of the natural world. And indeed there is much to pay attention too. These are Red Breasted Mergansers, a large diving duck with a long thin bill and the feathers on the head can be spiked out at the back in a sort of duck Mohawk. They’re quite different in appearance from the Hooded Merganser although by similarity of name you might expect a close family resemblance. The males or Drake Hoodies are a little more plump, have the distinguishing white patch on their head which incidentally, they can alter the shape and size of depending on how they wish to attract the female they are currently courting. Their eyes are yellow and they have distinctive white feather bands visible even when resting in the water. They flirt with the hens by tilting themselves back in the water and making a toot-toot sound almost like a little toy train.
The Red Breasted Merganser males are a bit more athletic in appearance, have dark red eyes, the crazy feather Mohawk on the head and tend not so much to court their would be mates as to chase them across the water surface, often in a frenzied mob. I’ve not yet seen a mating as the successful result of such a chase so I’m assuming that in the end the hens are rather amused but not enchanted by such displays of machismo.
Several weeks ago I tried again at Herring Cove for a closer photo of this beautiful bird. The day was foggy and alternately sprinkling downpouring and just generally damp. A low haze of fog hung over the ocean and light levels were low. After several different tries including getting soaked twice, I assumed success was not to be had. I did decide to visit and old haunt in Wellfleet that I knew was in the process of being rebuilt when last I saw it. “Uncle Tim’s Bridge”. After crossing over the new bridge which was significantly more safe than the old fellow it replaced but with significantly less character (sigh!) I sighted a Red Breasted Merganser pair in the pond beside the island. Although they were somewhat aware of me, there was enough fleeting time to get a couple of nice shots of the Drake. At home I realized that it is extremely difficult to expose for all the detail and keep the dark red eye from disappearing into the ducks black head. Because they are so skittish, composition and background are “catch as catch can”. Still, this is the most success I’ve had so far and I’m glad to have them.