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Fish fight at Market Lake

Living the Wild Life

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Bill Schiess,

Plenty to drink, plenty of food, a few girls to flirt with, buddies to fight and play with, no social distancing required and if you were not happy with one watering hole, there were plenty more with more friends.

Seven guys and two gals were making the rounds around the watering hole when another buddy on the other side of the joint found a stash of food. Five of the hungry boys quit flirting and headed quickly for the food.

The participants in this activity are migrating Red-breasted mergansers who have found area ponds near Roberts and Mud Lake, nice “watering holes” to vacation in during the last two weeks. One pond just west of Market Lake was this scene last Tuesday as I spent three hours watching and recording these activities. What a show!

The first thing I noticed as I pulled to a stop were a group of bachelor mergansers displaying as two couples were swimming near an island on the pond. The males would raise their bills skyward, drop their body in the water which caused their behinds to stick up. As one of the single males got too close to a female, she quickly jabbed his extended bottom with her bill – not a sign of endearment.

About 20 yards away from the group, I saw a ruckus in the water; a lone male had caught a large perch and another male was chasing the successful fisherman trying to steal the fish. The fish was too large for either bird to swallow and during the wrestling match it escaped – but an alert Osprey quickly took advantage of the situation and harvested the injured fish.

That event appeared to trigger hunger pains in the small flock of mergansers. These birds often hunt in a group by “herding” a school of small fish into shallow water where they feed on them. This group on nine formed a semi-round formation and began diving. When they caught a small fish, they would surface and with a quick flip of their head would position the fish head first to swallow it.

Red-breasted mergansers form breeding couples in late winter and the two females had chosen their significant-others and those males protected the females from the other males. Occasionally a female would be fed by their partner.

When a chub or perch was caught that was too large for the successful fisherman to quickly swallow it, a fight ensued. Up to five of the males would try to steal the catch. Several times a duck would have a chub about half-way down when another would grab the tail and pull the fish back out. I never saw either female engage in a fight over a fish; but when one of the female’s partner began fighting over a large chub, all heck broke loose.

As the two males were trying to get control of the fish, she attack them, splitting them up, allowing the fish to escape and swam off with her partner. I could almost hear her saying: “You stupid men – you pick something too big to eat and then fight over it. Just another fish story!”

Being the only human observer at the pond that day, I was blessed to witness and record another great nature show in the wilds. I love this social distancing – it is becoming a near daily habit to be out among the wildlife.

Missing some entertainment? Find a pond loaded with ducks, coots, geese, herons or even sandhill cranes, sit long enough for them to get used to your vehicle and then watch the show – you may see something that you have never seen before.