Spring is just ducky: Learn to ID waterfowl

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ring-necked duck
Ring-Necked duck. (By CheepShot [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re new to identifying birds, you might want to begin with waterfowl.

They are large, conspicuously marked in breeding plumage and relatively easy to spot.

Though songbird migration peaks in May, early spring is a great time to learn ducks and other waterfowl.

Binoculars and a field guide are the essential tools.

To find waterfowl, visit lakes, ponds, flooded meadows and rivers, especially near dams. Sometimes even roadside ditches attract a surprising array of visitors. These are the habitats ducks frequent as they head north in spring.

First, watch how a duck behaves on the water.

If it feeds on the surface by tipping its butt 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, however, a duck dives completely 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 power their underwater movements. This leg position makes divers ungainly on land, but they are excellent swimmers.

Male waterfowl are typically more colorful and strikingly marked, so let’s focus on drakes.

Here’s a brief guide to what to look for on some common male ducks you can expect 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.

The Dabblers

Wood duck. This 1.3-pound, cavity-nesting duck has a conspicuous slick-backed crest, multicolored feathers, a red eye ring and red bill, and white throat and cheek markings.

Mallard. This 2.4-pound duck has a green head, white collar, yellow bill, chestnut breast and curly-cue tail.

American wigeon. This 1.6-pound duck has a white forehead and crown, green mask and white inner wing patch in flight.

Northern pintail. This 1.8-pound duck has a chocolate brown head, white breast with narrow white finger extending up the neck and a long pointed tail.

Northern shoveler. This 1.3-pound duck has a green head, large conspicuous spatula-shaped bill, white breast, brown sides and powder blue shoulder patches in flight.

Teal. This duck comes in two eastern species, both small.

The blue-winged teal is 13 ounces, has a powder blue shoulder patch in flight and wears an obvious white crescent on its face.

The green-winged teal is the smallest dabbler at 12 ounces. It has a chestnut head with green ear patch that extends down the neck and an iridescent green patch on the wing.

The Divers

Canvasback. This 2.7-pound duck has a dark rusty head, an angular head profile, a black bill and breast, light-colored back and favors deeper water.

Redhead. This 2.3-pound duck has a rusty head, slightly concave head profile, black breast and gray back.

Ring-necked duck. This 1.5-pound duck is poorly named. It has a white ring near bill tip, and its head may appear pointed. It has a gold eye with a dark head, breast and back, and gray sides.

Common goldeneye. This 1.9-pound duck is a cavity-nester with a dark head with a round white cheek patch, a gold eye and a white breast and sides.

Bufflehead. This 13-ounce, cavity-nesting duck is small with a dark head with a large white bonnet and a white breast and sides.

Mergansers. There are three species of this duck. They all have serrated bills for catching and holding fish.

The common merganser is a large, 3.4-pound cavity-nesting duck with a green head and red bill, and a white body with black back.

The red-breasted merganser is a 2.3-pound duck with a green head with shaggy crest, a wide white collar and streaked rusty breast.

The hooded merganser is a 1.4-pound cavity-nesting duck has a black bill and black crested head, a gold eye and chestnut sides. When its crest is fanned, a large white patch appears.

Ruddy duck. This 1.2-pound duck has a chunky, compact body, a tail often cocked upward like a wren, a dark head with large white cheeks, blue bill and a chestnut body.

Other waterfowl

Other waterfowl you might encounter this time of year include a variety of larger species.

Canada goose. This widespread and common bird is in the 6- to 12-pound range. Frequently loafs at city parks, golf courses and athletic fields, where its droppings foul the landscape. It is identified by a conspicuous white chinstrap that marks the black head and neck.

Snow goose. This stocky, white goose weighs 5 to 8 pounds. It has black primary wing feathers and a pink bill. This bird is presently headed north to breeding grounds in Canada.

Other waterfowl out this time of year include tundra swans, loons, grebes, coots, rails, herons and egrets.

If you get lucky, you might find a dozen species at a single hot spot.

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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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