Feeding Habits of Red-breasted Mergansers

Red-breasted Mergansers foraging with their heads submergedRed-breasted Mergansers foraging with their heads submerged – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/500, ISO 160, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

According to Birds of North America there are four foraging methods used by Red-breasted Mergansers which are Cooperative Herding, Individual Search, Shallow Diving and Deep Diving. Even though there is a pair of birds in the image above they are using the Individual Search method which involves swimming continuously with the head submerged while searching for prey. These two birds were in a shallow lagoon at the north beach of Fort De Soto County Park.

Red-breasted Merganser diving into a waveRed-breasted Merganser diving into a wave – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/750, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

This Red-breasted Merganser was photographed as it foraged in the Gulf of Mexico also using the Individual Search method but seemed to be caught unawares when a rather large wave came up to the bird. Not the best image as far as getting eye contact from my subject but I can see the eye and I am fairly certain the bird could see me too.

Red-breasted Merganser in the wavesRed-breasted Merganser in the waves – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 160, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 310mm, natural light

In my observations of Red-breasted Mergansers foraging I noticed that they foraged for long periods of time and their activity level was high and that they would often take a small break while foraging to briefly look around. Perhaps that was to make sure there were no predators in the area.

Red-breasted Merganser taking a breakRed-breasted Merganser taking a break – Nikon D200, handheld, f7.1, 1/350, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 360mm, natural light

After a lengthy period of foraging I also noticed that Red-breasted Mergansers would climb out of the water to rest. I photographed this resting Red-breasted Merganser on the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico at Fort De Soto’s north beach. I was able to belly crawl up to the merganser without disturbing it.

One other foraging behavior I saw and do not see mentioned at BNA is that Red-breasted Mergansers would follow Reddish Egrets who were actively foraging and then would capture prey that the egrets scattered towards them. The Reddish Egrets paid the Red-breasted Mergansers very little attention if any at all but the mergansers seemed to benefit from the feeding activity of the egrets. In a way it is a form of Cooperative Herding but the mergansers are using the Reddish Egret to do the herding.

Soon I should be seeing Red-breasted Mergansers here in Utah and I hope that I will see and photograph more of their foraging behaviors.


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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and to pursue my passion for photographing birds.


  1. Pingback: Birding News #58 | Prairie Birder

  2. Jane Chesebrough

    amazing shots in the wave!

  3. An amazing series. That first pair looked as if they were practising ‘dead man’s float. And the wave capture was incredible. Thank you.

  4. Wonderful series…especially like the bird in the wave shot and the close ups…was surprised by the first image (showing BOTH birds with heads in the water)…I usually see one on look-out duty while the other hunts/feeds…

  5. Ditto @Montanagirl.

    The photo of the merganser in the wave is astounding!

    Wonderful work, Mia.


  6. Thanks for this wonderful post Mia. I’m also looking forward to seeing these soon at the Bear River Refuge, since it’s free and close by.

  7. These are one of my favorite birds, for the reasons so well illustrated in your series of shots … action, texture, color. The foraging mode illustrated in the first image is what I call the almost-surfaced-submarine mode.

  8. We’re in the opposite situation, where the Red-breasted and Common Mergansers will be leaving us soon. The behavior you describe is so fun to watch! I love seeing them paddling along that way. And what a shot in the wave, Mia! That is an uncommonly lovely one!

  9. Amazing photos! Diving Merganser is fantastic! Thank you for sharing :)

  10. Good heavens … that shot of birdie IN the wave is AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!! Well, they’re ALL amazing!!!!!

  11. I can’t say enough about your photography – Fabulous!

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