Vacations, interrupted

A recent trip to my favourite place, Englewood Beach, was fraught with peril.  There actually was a fair amount of sand on the beach, which is the good news for those of us keeping score on that battle with Mother Nature, but it was so loosely-packed that it made walking difficult.  On top of that (literally) was a two-inch layer of shells and shark teeth, making each step painful as my feet were shredded and mauled by long-dead sea creatures.  It was great for collecting shark teeth and shelling, but I was only able to walk about two miles before I had to tap out and relax on a chair by the surf with a good book.

 The weather was perfect—sunny, in the low 80’s during the day and upper 60’s at night.  Sleeping with the windows open, I could almost hear the sound of the waves crashing ashore over the drone of my neighbors’ air conditioners.  (What kind of meat locker situation necessitates running an AC when it is 60° outside?)

 My first world problems aside, it was easy to see how sometimes, the smallest thing can go wrong and turn a short trip into a bit of a challenge.  Imagine a trip of over 2,000 miles and the troubles a little bird could find along the way.

 Peace River Wildlife Center had one such patient this week.  A red-breasted merganser was admitted with an injured foot.  The adult female probably tangled with a predator (or tried to walk on the beach at Manasota Key) and got away with just some minor damage to her right foot.  After a brief respite at PRWC, she was released to resume her winter vacation.

The red-breasted merganser is a large, saw-billed, diving duck that resides in the tundra and taiga regions—the areas between the north pole and the beginning of deciduous forest growth in northern Canada and Alaska.  The male has distinctive breeding plumage with a metallic green head, white neck, rust chest, and white stripe along the wing edge.  The female has much more muted colours, but both exhibit a uniquely long, shaggy double-pointed crest at the top of their heads and a long, thin, red bill with serrations along both the upper and lower edges.  They have red eyes and feet, with the female’s being more muted than the male’s.

Since it legs are positioned relatively far back on its body, the merganser walks awkwardly on land.  This drawback on land becomes a great advantage in the water, where the powerful legs and webbed feet help it to swim and dive after small fish—its primary food source.  The merganser can dive down to depths of 30 feet, holding its breath for as long as 45 seconds. 

Like many birds, the merganser takes off by running across the surface of the water or land, but this species is extremely fast once air-born, having been clocked at speeds up to 100 mph.  It has a unique feature that assists in making this one of the fastest birds in flight:  It can reverse the tips of its primary feathers on upstroke for added propulsion, especially during take-off. 

Red-breasted mergansers breed in the far northern regions of the Americas.  They nest in cavities on the ground lined with their own down.  The chicks leave the nest within a day of hatching.  While the female tends to her brood for the two months it takes until they can fly, the precocial youngsters find their own food.  Mergansers are late nesters and migrators,and the immature birds often embark on the long journey south soon after their first flight.

Red-breasted merganser on admission, unable to use right leg.
Red-breasted merganser on admission, unable to use right leg.

Our patient was not standing on her right leg when admitted and had some soft-tissue injuries to the foot on that side.  She was thin and exhausted from her migration and inability to feed herself properly.  After a few days of cage rest and good nutrition, she perked up quickly.  She was propped up in a lawn chair with a good book and a margarita… no wait, that was me again.  The merganser was placed in an outdoor cage where she regained her strength and was soon ready to be released.  She happily (and strongly) swam off to be reunited with her flock.

These warrior birds make me look kind of wimpy for complaining about a few shells on the beach.  Who am I kidding?  I don’t need to be compared to a bird to look like a fool. 

The red-breasted merganser is an unusual species for us to see here at PRWC.  One of the best things about being involved in wildlife rehab in this area is the variety of species we encounter.  We have a plethora of native species in southwest Florida and being on a major migration pathway, we never know what exciting new birds will show up at our door.  Of course, the very best part of wildlife rehab is getting to release an animal back out into the wild after it is healthy again, and knowing that in some small way, we have helped to extend not only the quantity but the quality of its life.

by –  Robin Jenkins, DVM

Red-breasted merganser after treatment, walking and swimming well.
Red-breasted merganser after treatment, walking and swimming well.