By Scott Shalaway
LONGER, warmer days signal plants to grow, torpid animals to awaken and migratory birds to move northward.
Though most song birds won’t arrive until April or May, March is a great month to master waterfowl identification. Binoculars are essential; a spotting scope is helpful.
Swans and geese are noticeable on lakes and big rivers:
Tundra Swans: They are enormous white birds whose bulk defies gravity. They weigh up to 14 pounds with a wing span of five to six feet. Much rarer trumpeter swans, North America’s largest waterfowl, weigh in at 23 pounds with a wingspan of more than 61/2 feet.
Canada Geese: Easily recognized by the white chin strap on its black head and neck.
Snow Geese: In flight, the black outer flight feathers contrast with their snow white bodies.
Identifying ducks is more difficult because of all the different species. To practice identifying waterfowl visit lakes, farm ponds, beaver ponds and rivers, especially near dams. These are the habitats ducks frequent as they head north to nest.
When spotting a duck, the first thing to notice is how it behaves on the water. If it feeds on the surface by tipping its hind ends into the air and stretching its neck beneath the water, it’s a dabbling or puddle duck, a group that includes woodies, mallards, blacks, gadwalls, pintails, wigeons, shovelers and teal. In taking flight, dabblers jump directly upward off the water.
If, on the other hand, a duck dives to feed, it’s a diver, a group that includes canvasbacks, redheads, ring-necks, scaup, goldeneyes, buffleheads and ruddy ducks. When divers take flight, they must patter along the surface to get airborne. That’s because their legs sit to the rear of the body to facilitate diving.
Here’s a brief guide to the key characteristics of male ducks you might encounter on local waterways. Females are duller and require a bit more experience to identify:
Wood Duck: Sports a conspicuous slick-backed crest, multi-colored, red eye ring, red bill, white throat and cheek markings.
Mallard: Green head, white collar, yellow bill, chestnut breast and curly tail.
Black Duck: Suggests a very dark hen mallard. Note the violet patch (speculum) on the wing.
Gadwall: Drab, black butt, white belly, white and chestnut patch on the wings in flight
Pintail: Chocolate brown head, white breast with narrow finger extending up the neck, long pointed tail.
Wigeon: White forehead and crown, green mask and white shoulder patch in flight.
Shoveler: Green head, large spatula-shaped bill, white breast, brown sides and powder blue shoulder patch in flight.
Teal: Two species, both small. Blue-winged teal shows a powder blue shoulder patch in flight and wears an obvious white crescent on its face. Green-winged teal is the smallest dabbler. Look for a chestnut head with a green ear patch.
Canvasback: Rusty head, profile of the head is angular, black breast.
Redhead: Rusty head like the canvasback, but the profile of the head is a bit concave rather than angular. Breast black, back gray.
Ring-necks: It has a white ring near the bill tip, and the head may appear pointed. Dark head, breast, and back, and the sides are gray.
Scaup: Two species, greater and lesser scaup, and distinguishing them is an advanced skill. Both have a dark head and breast, gray backs and pale sides
Common Goldeneye: Dark head with round white cheek patch, breast and sides are white
Bufflehead: A small bird with a dark head with large white bonnet and white breast and sides.
Mergansers: Three species, all have “toothed” bill for catching fish. The Common Merganser is large with a green head with red bill. The Red-breasted Merganser has a green head with a shaggy crest, white collar, and streaked breast. The Hooded Merganser has a black bill on a black-crested head. When the crest is fanned, a large white patch appears.
Ruddy duck: A chunky, compact duck. The tail is often cocked upward, the head is dark with large white cheeks, blue bill and chestnut body.–Pittsburgh Post Gazette