I was walking along the East River in Manhattan yesterday, between the helicopter pier and the Brooklyn Bridge, when I noticed a brightly colored duck bobbing in the wake of pleasure boats and water taxis. As it came closer I recognized a male red-breasted merganser, Mergus serrator.
Its breast is kind of red but most of us would call it brown -- a reddish brown that I think of as ornithological red. So I can't help wondering how this bird came to be called a red-breasted merganser. Picture the moment: Hmmm, should we call it red-eyed? Shaggy-haired? Orange-billed? Wait, I've got it! Let's name it for its least distinguishing and most easily confused feature!
And what is it doing in the East River looking incongruous? Red-breasted mergansers mainly eat fish, so it could have been looking for lunch. (The orange beak is serrated and helps to catch and hold prey.) They spend their winters in coastal waters, like the East River. They can be found on both coasts of the United States in winter and almost anywhere inland while migrating in spring and fall. They breed during summer in very far northern Canada and at high northern latitudes around the world.
This bird will spend the summer in the tundra or in a wild northern forest lake far from human civilization. What a contrast to spending a winter Saturday in New York City. How strange it must seem to sit amid the helicopter, boat, and car traffic while sirens wail and a photographer snaps shots from the shore.