Like svelte, swish-coiffed clowns, mysteriously delving underwater only to bounce up again at unexpected junctures, goosanders dot the cold canal, throughout the year. Browsing solo, spooling by in couples, or clubbing together in small groups, like ragamuffin jazz bands with their fancy hair and long, kazoo-like beaks, they are instantly recognizable - Mergus merganser, the males with heads of polished green, looking sleek as snooker table baize, females eagle-eyed with snow-white breast and sludgy plumage, and tufty hair the colour of gingerbread. Known in the USA as mergansers, these colourful, slinky birds have been resident in Britain since 1871, with the population spreading from Scotland in the 1970's and establishing strongholds across Northern and coastal areas ever since, the birds number around twelve thousand on these shores, and are described by the Wildlife Trusts as "gregarious." I see them at the wharf at Sowerby Bridge, ducking and diving among the geese and gulls; I notice them occasionally patroling the wider waters of the Calder. I catch sight of them on quiet patches of the Rochdale Canal at Brighouse, gliding through the twilight like shy Kabucci dancers, feathers glistening in gems of sun-dyed rain.
Mergansers, wrote American science and nature writer Ann Zwinger in her 1975 book Run, River Run, a description of her travels by canoe along the Green River, Colorado, are fish-eating ducks and swim underwater after food. When disturbed, mallards almost spring straight up, while mergansers make a long taxi on the water. Mergansers are long bodied, somewhat loonlike in aspect; both red-breasted and American mergansers frequent the upper river.
The ducks are aided in their diet of fish (largely trout and salmon) by the serrated edges of their bills, hence their nickname "sawbill," and will also feed on insect larvae, crustaceans, amphibians and worms, and occasionally small mammals. Another non-de-plume is "the Fish Duck." The birds have even been compared, in their manner and posture, and especially their clumsiness on rare excursions on land, to penguins. However, their actual physical appearance is distinctively Mersangian, especially the female's. Ann Zwinger again:
The females of both are so boldly marked with a crested rusty-brown head that it is some time before I can identify one as a female American merganser rather than a male of some species that does appear in the guide book.
Goosanders first swam their way into the choppy waters of English poetry in 1612, courtesy of Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion - though the poet prefers the traditional "Gossander":
The Gossander with them, my goodly Fennes doe show
His head as Ebon blacke, the rest as white as Snow
...but their shiny-plumed presence has been largely lacking from the pages of English poets ever since. Across the pond, however, they have bobbed their heads above the water, in the form of the American merganser, M. m. americanus, and first surfacing in the work of Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), who imbued the birds with a river-like flow of consciousness:
Mergansers fans on their heads
Thoughts on things fold unfold above the river beds
... while in John Hennessy's poem In The Drink, they are a stand-out moment for the mythical Charon, boatman of the dead, who notes the iridescent green, / brilliantined, of a merganser’s spiky coxcomb, to the thrill of his expired passengers. But the merganser's joviality is not to the taste of the monstrous ferryman:
He swam right by, chasing red herrings
and cackling so happily I had to pulla feather from his cap
But when not haunting the Stygian rivers, goosanders live, breed and nest right across the Northern Hemisphere, from America to Siberia, where they are thought to number around 50,000.
Sometimes when I watch them vanish underwater, then see the curved pinks of their lethal beaks jutting out again as they push up through the ripples, they remind me of cormorants. At other times, they could be drakes, strolling along, unhurried, not so much oblivious to their fellow birdlife, as insouciant, integrated, meditative. For all the predatory prowess of these snap-happy, beaky birds, goosanders are a calming influence, relaxing to watch, and largely unobtrusive to their neighbours.