Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Common Merganser - Mergus merganser
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General Comments The Common Merganser is both a breeder and a wintering bird in the state, but with different "populations". It winters regularly in the state only at one to a few inland lakes, as North Carolina lies at the southern edge of the winter range. It moves southward in relation to the severity of the winter, and thus it can be more numerous, though always a good find, during periods of major freeze-up of lakes farther northward. At most sites when and where seen, it stays only for a few days, but a sizable flock is known to spend the entire winter in the middle of Phelps Lake; Roanoke Rapids Lake, and possibly even Lake Waccamaw, might also host a few regularly wintering mergansers. This species strongly favors fresh water, the larger the lake/reservoir the better. However, a few -- almost always females -- can be found on occasions in tidal water, usually in sheltered water inside an inlet. The species nested at a site in Chowan in 1938 (parents with five young), and on the Green River in Polk in 2011 (female photographed with 10 young) [Chat 75:149-152 link], and again in 2012-2014. Since 2016, there have been confirmed nestings at a number of other rivers and larger creeks in the mountains and upper Piedmont.
Breeding Status Breeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status W
U.S. Status
State Rank S1B,S1N
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Winter resident. Rare and local over the northern half of the province, with a flock averaging at least 200 birds regularly wintering at Phelps Lake; a few were seen over the winter of 2007-08 at Lake Waccamaw. Despite other large lakes in the province, especially Lake Mattamuskeet, it is typically absent at these, except as rare visitors; a few visit tidal water, such as near Oregon Inlet. In the southern half of the province, it is very rare along the coast, and is casual inland, with a recent record of one in Lumberton (Robeson) from 8-23 Jan 2023 being quite unusual. Late Nov to late Mar. Peak counts, all from Phelps Lake: 881, on a CBC, 30 Dec 2014; 840 on 1 Feb 2020; 600 on 13 Jan 2023; 570 on 26 Jan 2013; 520 on 15 Jan 2017.
Piedmont Winter visitor, though possibly a winter resident at Roanoke Rapids Lake; casual breeder. Rare in most winters, though can be uncommon during severely cold weather; more frequent in the northern half of the province than in the southern half. Favors large reservoirs, such as Jordan, Falls, Roanoke Rapids, and reservoirs in Guilford and Forsyth. Generally late Nov to late Mar. There are at least fivebreeding records, all from the Green River/Lake Adger area in Polk: in 2011 (female photographed with 10 young) [Chat 75:149-152 link]; 2012 (nine birds) [Chat 76:130 link]; and in 2014 (10 juveniles) [Chat 78:157 link]; plus several hens with many chicks on the Dan River in Stokes, 15 Apr 2017. At Jordan Lake, one or two females lingered all summer in the 1990's and early 2000's, though no evidence of nesting was found. Several records of pairs in Apr 2016 and May 2017 along western rivers might indicate breeding. In 2019, breeding was confirmed for the Green River and Lake Adger area (Polk). A female with four immatures on the Linville River just above Lake James (Burke) on 14 Jun 2023 might have nested locally. Peak counts: 32, Jordan Lake, 1 Jan 1984; 29, Beaverdam Reservoir (Wake), 9 Mar 2014; 27, Falls Lake, 14 Mar 1993.
Mountains Formerly casual to now (2023) rare but increasing breeder; scarce winter visitor. Generally rare in winter, with nearly all records from the southern mountains (Buncombe, Haywood, and Transylvania); early Nov to late Mar. In recent years, there have been numerous records of adults along fast moving rivers and larger creeks during the breeding season, and some involved adults with obvious young birds. Breeding was confirmed in the province when a female was seen with six juveniles on the Tuckasegee River near Dillsboro (Jackson) on 9 Jun 2016. Another female was seen on the Little Tennessee River at Needmore Game Land (Swain) on 7 Jun 2016; such a date suggests a possible breeding bird. The species may have bred along the South Toe River near Celo (Yancey) in 2017, as six were there on 13 May and eight were there on 4 Aug. In summer 2018, breeding was again confirmed along the South Toe River, in addition to a first confirmed breeding record for Madison, with a female and six juveniles on Big Laurel Creek on several dates in Jun and Jul. The species might have bred along the French Broad River in Madison in 2018, as a pair was seen at Hot Springs on many occasions. In 2019, breeding was confirmed for the Tuckasegee River (Jackson). In 2020, breeding was confirmed on the South Toe River (Yancey), the Tuckasegee River, and the Johns River (Caldwell); and pairs seen that suggested breeding on the Watauga River (Watauga) and the Little River (Alleghany). Many additional late spring and early summer records in the region in 2021 and 2022, with suggested breeding in Cherokee and McDowell. Breeding was confirmed in 2023 for Transylvania, Polk, Yancey, Madison, and Jackson. Peak counts (of non-juveniles): 8, South Toe River near Celo, 4 Aug 2017; 6 at that site, 13 May 2017; 4, Lake Julian, 15 Jan 2003. A count of 18 at the Tuckasegee River on 11 Sep 2020 likely consisted of numerous older juveniles plus parents, as the date is too early for fall migrants; ditto for 16 on the Oconaluftee River (Swain) on 7 Oct 2021 (too early for migrants).
Finding Tips To best see this species, look at Phelps Lake in the winter, with a good scope. The wintering flock usually stays close to the middle of the lake and is best seen from the ramp next to the Pettigrew SP office, on the northeastern shore of the lake. Of course, mornings are best so that the sun is somewhat at your back. The platform at the western end of the lake can be good also, with best viewing in the afternoon. However, one often has to deal with morning fog, or high winds causing choppy waters. Thus, viewing conditions on this large lake can be a challenge, and the birds seldom forage close to shore. Elsewhere, Roanoke Rapids Lake may be the best option, though there are few good access points for viewing. The species has now nested for 3-5 years along the Green River near Lake Adger; thus, check this area in spring and summer. You may stumble onto a bird or a pair along mountain rivers in spring and summer nowadays, or by midsummer an entire family of birds with many juveniles.
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Attribution LeGrand[2023-10-20], LeGrand[2023-08-09], LeGrand[2023-05-17]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.
NC Breeding Season Map
Map depicts assumed breeding season abundance for the species.