To refresh your memory, here is the photo from November’s Bird Quiz. The bird was seen in New Mexico during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
At first glance, you might think this is a difficult quiz, but it really isn’t. For starters, we can tell right away that this bird belongs in the water. It’s some sort of waterfowl. And if you’ve been to any ponds in your lifetime, you should be able to recognize a duck, even tail up.
There are two general groups of ducks, dabblers and divers. Dabblers paddle along with their heads underwater, munching on greens and bugs, like this Mallard (below, left). Divers go completely underwater, arching head first into a graceful dive, as this Hooded Merganser is doing. That’s not to say that divers can’t stick their bills just under the surface, but you’ll never see a dabbler jump in head first. If our duck was diving, it would be curved into an arc, not head down with its tail in the air. Only dabblers go end-up in this way.
What else do we know? The legs and feet are bright orange. At least the rear half of the duck is a rich, chestnut brown, the tail is black, and there’s some white on the flanks. Is that enough to ID the bird?
When comparing so many species, it’s easier (at least for me) to use a field guide rather than hunting online. I first turned to Sibley’s, but he doesn’t mention which ducks are dabblers and which are divers, nor does he show the legs very clearly. National Geographic does distinguish between dabblers and divers, but again, it doesn’t always show the legs. I know that ducks tend to sit on the water, but sometimes they flap or fly or otherwise show some limbs. I’ll have to use both my field guides (while wishing for a third), as well as checking online for the illustrations that are lacking.
Let’s start with the orange legs. I tried googling “which ducks have orange legs” but it didn’t return a comprehensive list. (Maybe it will show up after this post is published!) However, the legs are still a helpful field mark. Among North American ducks, Mallards, Mottled Ducks, American Black Ducks, Northern Shovelers, and Hooded, Common, and Red-breasted Mergansers have orange legs and feet. (Some teals and golden-eyes have yellow legs, but not orange.)
Mergansers are diving ducks, so we can eliminate them. (They have different color markings, too.) That leaves the Mallard group and the shovelers. It’s a simple matter to match the brown/white/black rear with the Northern Shoveler, and there you are. Here are some more Northern Shovelers, busy dabbling.
When birds have an obvious field mark, as in the case of the shoveler’s oversized and flattened bill, it’s sometimes hard to remember to look at the rest of the bird. But, as this example shows, sometimes you can’t see the trait you’re most familiar with. Then we have to turn to secondary field marks, plus the general impression we get when we look at the bird. Doing that allows us to ID birds from all angles, even upside down!