Mergus merganser americanus

Status:  Common, locally abundant, regular spring and fall migrant statewide. Rare casual summer visitor statewide. Rare regular breeder central. Fairly common, locally abundant, regular winter visitor statewide.Common Merganser Breeding Range

Documentation: Specimen: WSC 522, fall 1975 Madison Co.

Taxonomy:  Some authors, for example Johnsgard (1975) and Gill and Donsker (2017), recognize three subspecies, two in Eurasia, and one in North America, M. m. americanus.  Nebraska birds are americanus.

Changes since 2000:  Reports continue to clarify the presence of apparent molt migrants at a few locations; this phenomenon was first noticed in the 1970s.

Spring:  winter <<<>>> Jun 1, 2, 3

It is difficult to separate winter visitors from early migrants, although there is a discernible increase in numbers in late Feb, peaking in mid-Mar. Few linger into May. Later reports away from Lake Ogallala are of one at Smith Lake WMA, Sheridan Co 6 Jun 2017, and one in Cuming Co 8 Jun 2018. As many as 24 were at Lake Ogallala 19-31 May 1997.

  • High counts: 200,000 at Harlan Co Reservoir, Harlan Co 14 Mar 2003, 4000-5000 at Branched Oak Lake, Lancaster Co 14 Mar 2010, 4000 at Lake McConaughy 24 Mar 1989 (Rosche 1994), and 3400 at Harlan Co Reservoir 3 Mar 2006.

Summer: All but one of the reports suggestive of breeding are from the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Brown and Keya Paha Cos, although the earliest documented record is from Victoria Springs SRA, Custer Co in 1968; a male and female were present during the spring, and on 27 Jul the female was seen by several observers with six ducklings (Bennett 1969). Since then, all reports of breeding and possible breeding are from a stretch of the Niobrara River within the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Brown and Keya Paha Cos. The first documented record there was of two broods near the Norden Bridge 2 Jul 2007; one brood had four half-grown untended young, the other eight downy young with an adult female (Mollhoff 2008). Since 2007, there are reports of adult females and/or broods in 2009, 2012-2015, and 2017-2020.  The six female-type birds there 22 Sep 2009 may have been a locally-raised brood. There were 2-3 females present each year 13-22 Jun 2012-2015.  An adult female with a brood was photographed 7 May 2017 and six nearly-fledged young were photographed nearby 7 Jul 2017, likely the same brood. In 2018, a female with three ¾ grown young was present 14 Jun, but no breeding evidence was reported in 2019 despite the presence of 1-3 birds, including an adult male, 4-7 Jun. A female and six well-grown young were photographed 2.5 miles above Norden Bridge 21 Jul 2020.

A pair was loafing at Big Alkali Lake WMA, Cherry Co 5 Jul 2020; this location is about 30 miles southwest of Norden Bridge.

Two other reports of possible breeding are of a “recent nesting record for the North Platte Valley to the west of Lake McConaughy” (Rosche 1994), and a pair at Lake McConaughy 31 May 1996 that was “suspected as nesting” (Grzybowski 1996). Neither report was accompanied by details, however.

There are scattered reports statewide during summer (4 Jun-4 Oct); some may be molt migrants (see Fall), but most are probably non-breeding immatures. Lake Ogallala attracts this species in summer; earlier, Jun-early Jul, most are likely non-breeding immatures, but later, beginning in mid-Jul, molt migrants add to the numbers there (see Fall).

Away from Lake Ogallala there are a few reports, including five reports from Lancaster Co, a male 1 Jun-14 Jul 2002, 14 Jun 1985, 18 Jun-4 Jul 2000, 1 Aug 1999, and 11 Aug 2002, and five from Lincoln Co, 26 Jun 1991, 10 Jul 2003 female or immature, 19 Jul 1997, 1 Aug 1991 (Williams 1987) and a female/immature 25 Aug 2015. Elsewhere, a single bird was in Dakota Co 22 Jun 2009, and one was in Garden Co 17 Jul 1978. Single males are less common; reports are from Saunders Co 11 Jun 2017, Harlan Co Reservoir 14 Jun 2017, Burt Co (7) 19 Jun 2019, Washington Co 21 Jun 2014, and Smith Lake WMA, Sheridan Co 1 Jul 2017.

Fall:  Oct 5, 6, 6 <<<>>> winter

Migration begins in late Sep and early Oct, and numbers peak in Dec. Major Central Nebraska reservoirs, Lake McConaughy, Sutherland Reservoir, and Harlan Co Reservoir, are important staging areas for this species. Earlier dates from sites where molt migrants do not usually occur are: 21 Aug 1999 Oliver Reservoir, Kimball Co, three on 31 Aug 2010 Sutherland Reservoir, 4 Sep 1973 McPherson Co, 7 Sep 2016 Gavin’s Point Dam, Cedar Co, 6 and 16 Sep 2017 Sutherland Reservoir, Lincoln Co, 17 Sep 2016 Calamus Reservoir, Loup Co, 18 Sep 1971 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, 18 Sep 2010 (45) Dixon Co, 26 Sep 1986 Pierce Co, 26 Sep 2010 Hitchcock Co, and 30 Sep 1992 Lincoln Co.

In recent years, it has been recognized (Silcock 1995) that molt migrants use two or three Nebraska locations, notably Lake Alice in the North Platte NWR, Scotts Bluff Co, Lake Ogallala, and possibly Harlan Co Reservoir. Few yearling and mature males remain on breeding grounds after mid-Jul (Palmer 1976); Nebraska molt migrants likely follow the Platte River Valleys from breeding locations in the mountains of Wyoming and western Colorado. Arrival at Lake Alice has been in mid-Jul most years since 1973, and as early as 25 Jun in 1997. Around 100-200 birds use the lake (Silcock 1995). A second location is Lake Ogallala, where up to 25 have appeared in recent years. A possible third location is Harlan Co Reservoir, where there are seven reports, albeit of only 1-2 birds, 4 Jun-25 Jul in the years 1998-2009.

  • High counts:  48,000 at Harlan Co Reservoir 14 Dec 1997, 40,000 at Lake McConaughy 23 Dec 1994, and 36,119 there 21 Dec 2003.

WinterWintering birds may occur on open water anywhere in the state, but largest numbers are at major reservoirs where open water remains through the winter. High winter counts are 20,000-31,000 (two estimates) at Harlan County Reservoir, Harlan Co 13-14 Dec 2018, 15,000 at Sutherland Reservoir 11 Feb 1994 and 12,000 at Lake McConaughy 15 Jan 1998.


NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SRA: State Recreation Area
WMA: Waterfowl Management Area (State)
WSC: Wayne State College

Literature Cited

Bennett, E.V. 1969. 1968 Nebraska nesting survey. NBR 37: 39-46.

Gill, F., and D. Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3), accessed 30 January 2018.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1996. Southern Great Plains Region. Field Notes 50: 296-300.

Johnsgard, P.A. 1975. Waterfowl of North America. Don Mills, Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2008. The 2007 Nebraska nest report. NBR 76: 155-165.

Palmer, R.S., ed. 1976. Handbook of North American birds. Vol. 2. Waterfowl (Parts 1 and 2). New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, NE.

Silcock, W.R. 1995. Summer Field Report, June-July 1995. NBR 63: 70-82.

Williams, F. 1987. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 41: 297-300.

Recommended Citation:

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2020.  Common Merganser (Mergus merganser). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 9 Dec 2020