(See note at end re: ID of this specific bird.)
The common merganser is responsible for first piquing my interest in identifying birds.
My best friend and I were spending an autumn weekend at a travel court cabin in Leavenworth several years ago. It had a deck overlooking a small river where we spent a lot of time relaxing.
We kept seeing a group of diving birds across the way with reddish crests. Neither of us had the foggiest idea what they were, we just knew we’d never seen them before. When I got back home I couldn’t rest until I figured it out.
It wasn’t that easy since I was clueless about IDing birds and had a difficult time narrowing it down with my web searches. Now I own the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds in both book and app form, and have gotten pretty decent at identifying new birds.
These photos are of a female. The males look dramatically different. The photo below shows how she uses her tail to push off against the surface of the water to make a dive.
Common mergansers are year-round residents in much of Washington State, including the Puget Sound region. They tend to prefer fresh water lakes and rivers, but are also often seen in estuaries and the sound. I took these pictures at Golden Gardens in March 2016.
When I was responding to Trisha in the comments below I was brought up short when looking at photos of other mergansers in my bird app. I hadn’t realized that the female red-breasted merganser looks so similar to the female common. I’ve seen a male red-breasted before and had no such trouble.
But based on a couple details I overlooked when I photograped this bird, I believe this is a female red-breasted, not common, merganser. I had already seen (and photographed) a common in a different location that day, and just assumed this one was also without bothering to question it, even though the beak on this one never looked quite right.
Embarrassing! But I will leave the rest of the original post as-is, even the wrong post title. Let this be a lesson to be careful.