“They’re all females! Where did the males go?”
My friend and I were newbie birders; I’d started keeping a “Life List” only two months earlier. August found us at our favorite spot—the local nature center’s ponds. As usual, the water was covered with ducks and other waterfowl. But the more we stared through our binoculars, the more confused we got. All the ducks were brown! What had happened to the familiar green heads of the mallards? We figured that some of the “females” must be immature males, but where were the adults?
Of course, we know better now. The males were still there. They had just turned brown. We birders call that their “eclipse” plumage. When you’re not trying to impress the ladies, there’s no reason to be flashy. It’s much safer to blend in with your surroundings. The male ducks were just doing what the females do all year—hiding from predators.
Recently, I was back at the same familiar pond, staring at all the mottled tan ducks and trying to identify them. It was darn difficult. As a beginner, I learned the various local ducks because it was easy… in general, the males of each species look pretty different from one another, and they just sit there in plain view, bobbing on the water. (At the nature center, the birds are accustomed to people, so it’s possible to get fairly close without disturbing them.) I figured that I’d save the harder females for another day, when I had more experience.
Well, that day has come. This year, I’m committed to learning female ducks, and males in their eclipse plumages. There are differences, they’re just more subtle. Size helps… teals are small, mallards are larger. Plus, some species sit lower in the water than others.
Markings still help too—you just have to look more closely. Mallards still have some orange on their bills, it just isn’t as bright, and the bills of many species don’t change at all. Gadwalls still sport little white patches on their sides, while Green-winged Teals have green patches. Some species of ducks only seem to fade a bit, instead of completely changing their appearance.
I also try to look at the silhouette. Shovelers still have their huge bills, while mergansers have their windblown hairdos.
Some ducks are here all year, while others only show up in season. Even those species who merely pass through migrate at slightly different times. Try checking the “recent sightings” board at the nature center. Before a birding trip, I like to ask around and find out what other birders have seen lately.
As with any identification project, it takes adding all these characteristics together to come up with a name. Hopefully with enough practice, it will become automatic—I’ll look at a duck and my brain will instantly recognize it in the same way I recognize my husband… not from a collection of attributes, but from prolonged familiarity.
Then, I promise, I’ll start learning to identify ducks in flight.