Amazing Grace & the Hooded Merganser

From my stool at the breakfast table, I look down at Grace the dog. She paces from one side of me to the other, then she barks, as if to will my eggs onto the floor. At eight years old, Grace is still more puppy than adult. Her smallish stature makes her seem young- a perma-puppy, some say. Grace’s black iridescent coat reminds me of a waterfowl’s feathers. As both dogs and birds are tetrapod’s, iridescent Grace and iridescent waterfowl share a common ancestor from about 310 million years ago.

Winter brings several species of waterfowl to our saltmarsh. They come to escape cold weather from the Great Lakes and Canada. Come spring, they head back north to nest. Among these waterfowl, I recognize black scoters, pie-billed grebes, and hooded mergansers. Most of these birds dive for their food. A floating bird becomes a concentric-circled ripple in the blink of an eye.

Hooded Mergansers, to me, have striking good looks. Thick black and white stripes cover the backs of males, with more muted stripes on females. White breasts on males give way to mahogany-colored underbodies. Head feathers of the male birds crest up into a giant white patch surrounded by a hood of iridescent black forehead and neck feathers. Females, though a more subtle and chestnut mono-color, also have a prominent retractable crest.

I find these birds floating among the boats at Sunset Cay Marina. I also see them in the flooded salt marsh on the north side of the Folly Road causeway between Peas Island and Sol Legare Island. I’ve seen them in the tidal creek adjacent to The Barrel, and in the marsh near Battery Island Drive.

Grace doesn’t care that she’s iridescent like a waterfowl. To her, a hooded merganser, like another dog or a small child, is just another thing competing for my attention. She quits her barking and looks up at me, exposing her mink-like white chest stripe. Finally, giving up on the eggs, Grace lies down, rests her head on the floor and sighs.

Anton DuMars is a coastal geologist and longtime Folly resident. Come sail aboard S/V Spartina. To book a trip, visit or email Capt. Anton at

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