As spring approaches, get to know the ducks

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Though song bird migration peaks in May, early spring is a great time to learn and review waterfowl identification. Binoculars and a field guide are the essential tools.

To find waterfowl, visit lakes, ponds, flooded meadows and rivers, especially near dams. These are the habitats ducks frequent as they head north in spring.

First, notice how a duck behaves on the water. If it feeds on the surface by tipping its hind end into the air and stretching its neck beneath the water, it’s a dabbling duck.

To fly, dabblers jump directly upward off the water.

If, on the other hand, a duck dives beneath the surface of the water to feed, it’s a diving duck. To fly, divers must patter along the surface to get airborne.

That’s because their legs sit to the rear of the body to facilitate diving. This leg position makes divers ungainly on land, but they are excellent swimmers.

Here’s a brief guide to the key features of some male ducks you might encounter on local waterways. Hens are duller and require a bit more experience to identify, though in the spring, they typically associate with drakes of their own species.

Dabbler ducks

Wood duck (1.3 lb.), conspicuous slick-backed crest; multi-colored gorgeous bird; red eye ring, red bill; white throat and cheek markings; cavity-nester.

Mallard (2.4 lb.), green head, white collar, yellow bill, chestnut breast, curly-cue tail.

American wigeon (1.6 lb.), white forehead and crown; green mask; white inner wing patch in flight.
Northern pintail (1.8 lb.), chocolate brown head; white breast with narrow white finger extending up neck; long pointed tail.

Northern shoveler (1.3 lb.), green head; large spatula-shaped bill; white breast; brown sides; powder blue shoulder patch in flight.

Teal, two eastern species, both small; blue-winged teal (13 oz.), powder blue shoulder patch in flight and wears an obvious white crescent on face.

Green-winged teal (12 oz.), the smallest dabbler; chestnut head with green ear patch that extends down neck; iridescent green patch on wing.

Diver ducks

Canvasback (2.7 lb.), dark rusty head; profile of head angular; black bill and breast; light-colored back; favors deeper water.

Redhead (2.3 lb.), rusty head; profile of head a bit concave rather than angular; breast black, back gray.
Ring-necked Duck (1.5 lb.), poorly named; white ring near bill tip; head may appear pointed; gold eye; dark head, breast, and back; sides gray.

Common goldeneye (1.9 lb.), dark head with round white cheek patch; gold eye; breast and sides white; cavity-nester.

Bufflehead (13 oz.), small; dark head with large white bonnet; white breast and sides; cavity-nester.

Mergansers — three species; all have “toothed” bill for catching fish; common merganser (3.4 lb.) is large with green head and red bill; white body, black back; cavity-nester; red-breasted merganser (2.3 lb.) has green head with shaggy crest, wide white collar, and streaked rusty breast; hooded merganser (1.4 lb.) has black bill, black crested head; when crest is fanned, large white patch appears; gold eye; chestnut sides; cavity-nester.

Other ducks

Ruddy duck (1.2 lb.), chunky compact duck; tail often cocked upward; head dark with large white cheeks; bill blue; body chestnut.

Other waterfowl you might encounter this time of year include a variety of much larger geese and swans.

Canada geese (6-12 pounds), widespread and common. Often loaf at city parks, golf courses, and athletic fields, where their droppings foul the landscape. Identified by a conspicuous white chinstrap that marks the black head and neck.

Snow geese (5-8 pounds) — stocky white geese with black primary wing feathers and a pink bill. Tundra swans (14.4 pounds) — large and all white; usually seen flying overhead in migration. Most individuals show a bit of yellow between the eye and the base of the black bill.

Trumpeter swans (23 pounds) — huge and white with black bill. Once quite rare in the east, their numbers have rebounded in recent years.

Mute swans (22 pounds) — huge and white with large orange bill. Native to Eurasia. Introduced to North America to populate parks and private lands; often a pest by harassing native waterfowl and destroying aquatic vegetation.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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