Quackers Revealed

As stated in the posting of this ID challenge, identifying mixed flocks of flying birds is tough, even when the action is frozen. Our eyes tend to migrate to the most colorful individuals in the group, in this case the male ducks. The less colorful individuals (females) tend not to catch our eye. In general, the plumage of most female ducks tends toward some shade of  brown and many female dabbling ducks seem nearly identical to one another in appearance. It takes practice for one to feel comfortable sorting them all out, even when they are sitting on the water. I have to admit, during late summer and early fall, when males attain a cryptic female-like alternate plumage (formerly called eclipse), I'm disinclined to expend much effort sifting through the massive brown swarm of dabbling ducks. Males, females, and immatures...they all look alike, especially through the haze and heatwaves that typify the hottest months of the year. Thankfully, between late fall and early spring (when these images were taken) the males molt back into their distinctive basic plumages and at least half the birds are readily identifiable.

There are five species of waterfowl in the original images posted with this ID challenge. They include four species of dabbling ducks: Northern Shoveler, Cinnamon Teal, Blue-winged Teal, and Green-winged Teal. There is also one species of diving duck: Redhead.  With the exception of Green-winged Teal, these images include both males and females of the other four species. There is a single female Green-winged Teal in each of the original images. So, let's go duck hunting, without guns of course.

The Dabblers

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This blown-up and cropped version of the upper picture in the original post includes all four species of the dabblers shown in the original images. Hopefully, the three male and two female Northern Shovelers are readily apparent. They are the largest five ducks in this picture and they have longer and heavier bills. The text below will further discuss the birds in this image.

Just above the male shoveler in the lower right corner of the image above is a male Cinnamon Teal. Its solid cinnamon-brown head, neck, and underparts are unlike any other North American waterfowl. Just below the male Cinnamon Teal is a paler brown female of that species (partially obscured by the male shoveler). If you look closely these male and female Cinnamon Teal, their head shapes and the length and profile of their bills are nearly identical. Also, note that the slope of the forehead feeds right into the slope of the bill with very little angle change.

Just above the male Cinnamon Teal there is a male Blue-winged Teal. The bright white crescent right behind the bill is diagnostic for males of this species. Take notice of the forehead and bill profile of the Blue-winged Teal. First off, the bill is shorter and thinner than that of the Cinnamon Teal. Additionally, the forehead is steeper and, unlike the Cinnamon Teal, there is a fairly distinct slope change between the forehead and the bill.

On the far left margin of this photo, opposite the male Blue-winged Teal, is a very small duck (the left most bird in this image). It is a female Green-winged Teal. Like the other females, it is mostly brown, but note that it does not show a large powder blue wing patch like the other three species. Its speculum, the dark area at the trailing edge of secondary feathers (the flight feathers closest to the body), is bordered above and below by white. Among common North American ducks, only Green-winged Teal and Mallard show this light-dark-light pattern on the speculum. A Mallard (not pictured here) would be much closer in size to the shovelers and would not have an all-dark bill.

In the top left hand quadrant of this image there is a female Northern Shoveler with two smaller females immediately below it. Experienced western birders had a decided advantage in determining the identities of these two birds. They likely presented the most challenging aspect of this image for many of you. The bird on the left is a female Blue-winged Teal and the bird on the right is a female Cinnamon Teal. We've blown-up this section of the photo (see below) to offer a better, though slightly blurry, look at these two birds.

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When faced with trying to separate female Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, it is important to focus your attention on the head pattern, the bill shape, and the forehead profile. The female Cinnamon Teal (lower right) has an extremely plain face then tends to become slightly paler towards the bill. Further, there is no evidence of any dark markings on the face and this bird does not show a dark line through the eye. The overall color of the head of a female Cinnamon Teal is buffy and "warm."  Conversely, the female Blue-winged Teal (lower left) shows some pattern to the face. As seen on this bird, the feathers right behind the bill and on the chin are very pale and near white. This look should be expected on female Blue-winged Teal. It is not shown in this image, but the cheeks of female Blue-winged tend to look a bit grayer on close inspection, giving them a "colder" overall look. Female Blue-wingeds also have a dark line behind the eye and a less obvious dark line in front of the eye. The dark post-ocular stripe is evident on this bird even though the image is a bit blurry, but the dark in front of the eye can't be seen here.

Finally, let's compare the head and bill profiles of these birds. The Cinnamon Teal has a fairly flat slope to its crown, the angle of which does not change much as it meets the upper ridge of the bill. Their bill is a bit longer and, if seen well, slightly spatulate (broadened and spoon-shaped) at the tip. On the female Blue-winged Teal, the forehead is not as steep as it appears on the male in the top image, but there is a noticeable slope change where the feathered forehead meet the base of the bill. The bills of Blue-winged Teal are also shorter, more tapered, and thinner at the tip.

The Divers 

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There is just one species of diving duck in the original pair of images. The image above has been cropped from the bottom picture in the original post. There are single male and female Redheads in this image. We'll start with the easier male, which is uppermost bird on the right side of the picture. Its distinctive cinnamon-brown head, black neck and breast, and mostly white underparts set it apart from the other ducks in this picture. What can be seen of the upper wing surface shows no obvious pattern or speculum markings.

In North America, the only species that bears a significant resemblance to a male Redhead is the male Canvasback. However, male Canvasbacks are whiter below and they do not show the contrasting gray flanks below the base of the wing. Additionally, the bill of a Canvasback is all dark with no apparent pattern. Their bill is also longer and more evenly sloped along the upper ridge. Redheads have a more concave ("dished") upper ridge to their bill and the male's bill is bluish gray over the basal two-thirds, with a sub-terminal white band and a black tip marking the outer third. This bill pattern can be seen, but not easily, on this male Redhead.

The bird in the bottom left corner of this image is a female Redhead. It looks a bit odd because there is a female shoveler (mostly obscured) directly behind it. In flight, female Redheads are tough to separate from many female dabbling ducks and female Canvasbacks. We can only see a portion of the upper surface of the far wing of this bird, but there is little if any evidence of pattern. With the exception of Northern Pintail, all the female dabbling ducks of North America show a fairly patterned speculum and even pintails have a pale trailing edge to the speculum. Female Redheads have a warmer more reddish brown plumage than other North American diving ducks, particularly on the head and upper breast. On this bird, note the amount of brown along the flanks below the base of the wing and how that blends with the brown on the breast and neck. If this were a female Canvasback, it would show a darker, more crisply marked breast and neck with little if any brown farther down the flanks and under the wing. This results in a fairly sharp contrast between the dark breast and pale flanks. Female Canvasbacks also appear paler and mostly gray above unlike the darker warm brown upperparts shown by a female Redhead. Like the male Redhead, this female shows a concave bill profile. Female Redheads also show a diffuse pale buffy area around the base of the bill and they also have a subtle buffy eyering. Both of these features can be seen in this image. Female Canvasbacks also show a light ring around the eye, but it is whiter and wider making it more obvious. Female Lesser and Greater Scaup bear some similarities to female Redheads, but they have much darker heads and more constricted white feathering limited to the area right around the base of their bill. Additionally, neither female scaup shows a pale eyering. In flight scaup have broad white wing lines (limited to the secondaries in Lessers, extending onto the primaries in Greaters).

Hopefully, these hints will be of use the next time you are faced with a mixed flock of ducks, either in flight or on the water. When sorting out female dabblers, it is best to pay attention to the overall size, speculum pattern, face pattern, and the bill and head profile. The same can be said for most diving ducks, although the pattern in the wing tends not to be restricted to the speculum (trailing edge of the secondaries). We invite your comments. Let us know if you find this sort of exercise helpful and better yet, how it might be improved. Once again, thanks to Steve Mlodinow for providing the original image, which was taken near LaPaz, Baja California Sur, Mexico in March 2009.

1

Good rundown. I would only suggest that the speculum is not the “trailing edge” of the secondaries, but is in fact the entire bank of iridescent visible secondaries. The trailing edge would, in the case of, say, Mallard and Green-winged Teal, be simply the terminal white line.

…Improvements? Inject more paragraph breaks to ease tedium. ;>}

2

I didn’t get to the quiz before the answer and explanation was posted. I could immediately pick out the Male Shovelers. I had to check my field guide to find the others. I have not memorized all the ducks.

I appreciate being walked through what to look for. I find it easier to identify birds frozen in flight than the real thing on the wing. I hope that comes with time.

Thanks Dave.

3

I love your articles thanks!!!!

4

That’s cleared my thoguths. Thanks for contributing.

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