Early spring is just ducky

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 (1.3 lb.) — conspicuous slick-backed crest; multi-colored, gorgeous bird; one of the most beautiful birds in North America; 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 conspicuous spatula-shaped bill; white breast; brown sides; powder blue shoulder patches 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.

The Divers:

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 serrated bill for catching and holding fish; common merganser (3.4 lb.) — 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.) — black bill, black crested head; when crest is fanned, large white patch appears; gold eye; chestnut sides; cavity-nester.

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

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

Canada geese (6 to 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 to 8 pounds) — stocky white geese with black primary wing feathers and a pink bill; presently headed north to breeding grounds in Canada.

Other waterfowl you might encounter 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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Send questions and comments to Dr. Shalaway at sshalaway@aol.com or 229 Cider Mill Dr., Apt. 102, Hendersonville, NC 28792.

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