Guidance for finding a Merganser Nest

Guidance for finding a Merganser Nest,
by Wayne Swallow, Water Quality Consultant

We’ve had several questions on how to find a common merganser nest.  Success will rely on one’s ability to differentiate the common merganser from related species, some knowledge of its biology, and a lot of persistence and patience.

Now, before you go off looking for a merganser nest, you’ll need to sign a liability release waiver – similar to one required for any member volunteering in our water-sampling program. You see, for us to show you how to find a merganser nest is tied up with the waiver. Before you engage in this activity you must sign off.  You will not receive the $1,000 without signing the liability release.  So, we are sorry for any inconvenience which may have resulted by our omission of the waiver requirement in our original announcement.  However, if you agree, then here we go:

Let’s cover identification first. Below are pictures of the male and female common merganser, along with closely related species the red-breasted merganser and hooded merganser.  The male common merganser is quite distinctive with a large white body and green head.

merganser nests

Those who live on the lake year-round have already witnessed the migration of mergansers, with many showing up in the narrows and on North Lake. I’ve not received any reports of mergansers congregating on South Lake but I suspect they are on South Lake also.

Reports I’ve received from North Lake indicate the birds have already paired up, with a male and female swimming along the shoreline. If they have not already mated they will soon do so. This video clip shows a mating pair. .   Riparians will have about 20 to 25 days to find the nest after mating occurs. You will likely not observe the birds mate, so watch for the absence of the female.   At that point you will know the female has found a suitable nest cavity to lay her eggs.  See this short clip of a female on a nest.  Nests are typically made in old woodpecker cavities in trees.   Occasionally mergansers may nest in rock crevices or roots of large trees. Nest can be located up to a mile from the water and sometimes very high in the tree.

The female will lay one egg a day with a clutch ranging from 8 up to 13 eggs. Once the last egg is laid she will incubate them from 30 to 35 days. The young will leave the nest within 48 hours of hatching.

The male will stay in the area for about half of the incubation period and then leave. It is in this period that male stays around that you have the best chance to observe the female joining him and returning to the nest. Watch where the female enters the woods and try to track her all the way to the nest.   Even if you can’t locate a nest, identifying a short length of shoreline where the female disappears will be helpful next year. Reports from North Lake indicate there may be from 3 to 5 nesting merganser pairs. For questions please call or email Wayne Swallow, 231-649-2087; [email protected] .


To get started download the file of the liability form, sign it and return it to LLL P.O. Box 123, Leland, MI 49654. Good Luck!!!


If you would like more details on the common merganser biology visit some of the following links.

You can also go on and search common merganser to find countless video clips.

Good luck!

Addendum, May 1:

Click here for Instructions for Merganser Spotters

Click here for Checklist, pdf

Click here for Checklist, Excel


7 thoughts on “Guidance for finding a Merganser Nest”

  1. The common mergansers are on the lake. I definitely have a pair in front of my house on Northlake and I know another gentleman has indicated he has several pair across the lake from me on the west side of the lake. Nick Fleezanis

      1. Richard Thompson

        Great description of Merganser behavior.
        It should help people with the identification and possible nest locations.

        Thanks for the video clips.

    1. Help the effort to better understand Swimmer’s Itch. Look for the ducks (mergansers) then report your observations

  2. Jason Safronoff

    What is the direct link with swimmer’s itch and the merganser? Why mergansers and not mallards?

  3. Wayne Swallow

    Please refer to the swimmers itch cycle description on this link: Swimmers itch depends on two organisms one a primary host (waterfowl) and a snail. Check out our announcement of the recent mystery photo contest winner. It has statics on the percentage of parasite infection rate on four waterfowl species. The merganser is the highest at 94%. This article explains why we focus on the common merganser. For more detail on swimmers itch read the MSU WQ-58 bulletin:

  4. I just can’t get behind this whole war on the birds; and mergansers in particular. Leave ’em be. While efforts to combat Swimmers Itch might have PR benefits for the Association (which may be why they are always with us), the effort itself is pretty much spitting into the wind, IMO.

    On the other hand, those merganser eggs do look tasty. I’m thinking mallard eggs are even larger.
    (On the mallard v. merganser issue I agree with Jason.) If you do take eggs, please have a little respect. Harvest & don’t destroy them. If you don’t want to eat them yourself, please contact me ([email protected]), and I will come get them pronto.

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