Courtship Behavior of Diving Ducks in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula (EUP)


Male Goldeneye head throw kick

The nearshore waters of northern Lake Huron in the EUP are home to interesting courtship displays and behaviors every spring. Those of six diving duck species that migrate to and through the area are especially visible: Hooded Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, Common Merganser, Bufflehead, and Red-breasted Merganser.

Large flocks of Long-tailed Ducks, few Goldeneyes, very few Common Mergansers, and even fewer Red-Breasted Mergansers, all spend their winters on ice-free waters of the northern Great Lakes.  The majority of the populations of these 4 species, all which migrate through the Great Lakes, spend their winters south of the northern parts of the Great Lakes.  Hooded Mergansers and Bufflehead winter south of the Great Lakes in warmer waters. They are smaller ducks and cannot maintain sufficient core body temperature to survive the cold winters.

In March and April, all six species are funneled up Lake Michigan and Lake Huron as they migrate toward their northerly breeding grounds. Bufflehead and Long-tailed Ducks nest north of the Great Lakes. The other four nest within the northern regions of the Great Lakes and further north.

All species, except Long-tailed Duck, migrate in nearshore waters and are guided along the coasts of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to the Straits of Mackinac.  From there many migrate in a northeasterly direction along the north shore of Lake Huron in the EUP. Many Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, and fewer Red-breasted Mergansers nest in the nearshore habitat along all of northern Lake Huron in the EUP. But many more continue toward more northerly nesting areas by skirting the shoreline toward the mouth of the St. Mary’s River near DeTour (Michigan). Long-tailed Ducks migrate from the open waters of Lake Huron to the river mouth as well.

In April the large channel between DeTour Village and Drummond Island (near the ferry route between the Village and the Island) can hold large numbers of all six species, as they wait for ice on St. Mary’s River to break up and flow into Lake Huron. They will not migrate further north until this happens.

Some of the channels of the Les Cheneaux Islands usually become ice-free in March, and large numbers of Hooded Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and Bufflehead stop to feed and rest in these calmer waters, before moving toward the St. Mary’ River. Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers usually do not stop in the channels because they prefer more open, unprotected waters.

The entire northern Lake Huron shoreline of the EUP, from St. Ignace to the large channel at DeTour, has many areas where a variety of courtship behaviors of every species (except Long-tailed Ducks) can be witnessed – in protected bays and coves, the channels of the Les Cheneaux Islands, ice-free creeks, and along any open shoreline on calm days. Courtship behavior of Long-tailed Ducks can be witnessed in the large channel from the ferry dock on Drummond Island or waterfront of DeTour Village.

Hooded Mergansers are the earliest diving duck species to arrive in substantial numbers, usually in early-to-mid March.  Some couples pair-up before arriving in the EUP.

But this unpaired female was looking to attract a mate.

Unpaired birds – both males calling.

Many males courting one female.

When couples pair they choose a protected location near the female’s nest site – such as a cove or pond, and their courtship behavior is only between themselves.

Male “big neck” display in a secluded small pond.

Female displaying for male in the same pond.

The unusual spring of 2018 saw very cold temperatures and frozen nearshore waters in the EUP well into April, and Hoodies found very limited areas of ice-free protected water.  At such a late date many of the birds were paired-up.

At a creek mouth, one pair ventured too close to another pair and were chased away. It seemed like the female on the left prompted her partner to take action.

Long-tailed Ducks usually do not arrive in large numbers to the channel between DeTour and Drummond Island until well into March.

Some birds pair-up in the channel (more than 900 miles south of their nesting grounds).  This female chose her mate but two other males tried to get her attention, one by slapping its tail (upper right above).

When the unwanted suitors got too close the female attacked.

Then her partner got involved and she decided to escape.

The couple was eventually left alone.

Common Goldeneye usually arrives in the EUP in large numbers in late March to early April.

Above six males court one female on the right.

Running is a common courtship behavior.

The male on the right flew in and landed to join the running group.

Males often perform this head-back display near females.

They can also perform this calling display.

Or the powerful head throw kick.

And a variety of other displays.

Common Goldeneyes can pair-up before arriving in the EUP. Above the female between the males signals her allegiance to the male on the right as a male approaches fast from the left with a head-back display.

The female above signals her commitment to a male while he displays feathers not normally visible.  This happened in the cold spring of 2018 in late April in a Les Cheneaux Island channel full of ducks.  Normally groups of diving ducks would not have been there at such a late date, and such late-stage courting behavior is usually never witnessed while large numbers of other ducks are present.

Bufflehead are the smallest of the 6 diving ducks species covered in this article, but they have the most energetic (and often hilarious) courtship behavior.

A male flaps after dunking repeatedly to wet his feathers, and thrusts his chest out while holding the last flap up briefly (above).  This behavior seems to happen only in the presence of females.

A male performs a skiing stop with his chest out – to impress a female resting on the shoreline right below me (the photographer).

He can also land chest forward to make an impressive wake for her.

Before his impressive landing, he will run with shortened strides – here, with the body raised.

And here with body lowered.

This male approached from the upper left to partially stop and then sharply turn and fly off.  This happened with the same female (mentioned further above) on the shoreline right below me.

A male Bufflehead blows bubbles….

…so he can be surrounded by them – all to impress the females…

..but if that doesn’t work he can shake-splash his tail…

…or raise his back feathers…

…but if he and other males take a break for too long a female may chase him into continuing the show.

On a normal year, Common Mergansers arrive in numbers to the EUP in early-to-mid April.

In the presence of females, males can chase each other.  Their courtship activity is much less active than the Buffleheads’,  probably because of their much larger size.

The males will also call through their nose – a distinct low pitched guttural sound. When doing so they will puff up as pictured above.

A Common merganser pair swims down a creek, female signaling her commitment to the male.

Red-breasted Mergansers are the last of the 6 diving ducks covered in this article to arrive in the EUP, usually in large numbers at the beginning of May.  Rocky peninsulas exposed to open rough water are a good place to find them.

A male Red-breasted Merganser trying to impress a female that may have been paired up with another male already.

The male above courted one female to the right of the frame.  This action preceded the following image and signaled to me (the photographer) that I must quickly focus a bit lower…

…because he would soon dip sharply and call.

After that he displayed his feathers as best he could.

Before engaging in courtship behavior Red-breasted Mergansers will often fly in tight groups before landing.  The other five diving ducks covered in this article do the same thing.  When a group lands right in front of me I have found the best photographic opportunity of courtship activity immediately afterward.