Mergansers bring quiet dignity to Evergreen Lake

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By Sylvia Brockner

I went down to Evergreen Lake last Friday to see if it was beginning to freeze. The overcast sky had left the lake without color. It was cold, gray and foreboding, but it was still liquid. Not even a white cap curled the surface.

It was bereft of color, a somber leaden gray. The aspen leaves have nearly all blown from the trees, forming pool of gold on the ground, but the willows along Bear Creek are still colorful. These big old white willow trees have two-toned leaves. All summer they are bright green above and a light silvery green below. They had just begun to change their color to yellow when a cold night frost nipped their beauty.
The golden leaves turned to a coppery bronze above with silvery undersides. They were magnificent even on this somber day and just glorious when the sun shone. While silver and bronze leaves may not be as valuable as silver and gold lives, they are still esteemed for their great beauty.
Suddenly the gloomy surface of the lake became alive as a fanciful male hooded merganser swam into view around the point of land that juts into the lake where Wilmot Creek enters the lake. His slow, dignified movement across the dull water brought life to the lake just as the first pair of dancers bring life and dignity to a previously empty ballroom floor. His black-and-white plumage had the appearance of a tuxedo as he waltzed across the lake with rhythmic, graceful and seemingly effortless motion.
There are three species of mergansers found in this country. The common merganser is the largest and used to be known as the American merganser. It is found all across the states and Canada. The middle-sized one is the red-breasted merganser. It is less abundant and breeds all across northern Canada. It is seen in the states during migration or in winter. The smallest is the hooded merganser, which has a beautiful fan-shaped crested head. They are more common in the eastern states than they are in the West, but then appear more abundantly again in the Pacific Northwest.
The female hooded merganser has a dark red head, which has a ragged crest. They are not usually seen in numbers anywhere as they do not collect in large rafts as many ducks do. They nest in hollow trees, which are near small lakes, much like wooded ducks. They nest in Colorado in the foothills usually and would no doubt nest near Evergreen Lake and the Hiwan Ponds if there were dead trees available and less human use. They might even nest as high as Echo Lake, but that would be unusual.
Several years ago, when my late husband Bill and I were vacationing, we came around a bend on a country road in Oregon, and there was a small pond about half the size of Evergreen Lake, in which a pair of hooded mergansers were swimming. There was an old cottonwood on the far shore that appeared to be dead with a few hollow limbs. We watched them for awhile just because they are especially attractive birds that both of us admired. We finally decided they were nesting in the old tree and left them in peace to enjoy their home with a private swimming pool.
All the female mergansers have dark red heads and ragged crowns. The males are mostly black and white. All mergansers are diving ducks. They have thin serrated bills. They eat fish, mollusks, frogs, etc., and the serrated edge of the beak makes it possible for them to hold on to such slippery food. They are not relished by hunters because they have a fishy taste.