Start with Ducks

Congratulations, you’ve decided to take up birdwatching. You’ve got the binoculars, the latest field guide or phone app, and the dorky hat. The extras can come later—the spotting scope, the camera with a long telephoto lens, the airplane tickets for that exotic birding destination. For now, you’re excited to begin, so you head to the nearest nature center or other birding hotspot.

And then reality steps in. The robins, crows, and pigeons are easy to recognize, but what are all those other birds? There are so many! Where do you begin?

As a newbie birder, I realized that learning my birds would take time. I resigned myself to the fact that sparrows and warblers can be tricky, immature gulls are extremely difficult, and Empidonax flycatchers are pretty near impossible. Instead of becoming ever more frustrated, I chose to begin with ducks.

Ducks are perfect birds for beginners. They’re fairly distinct. They’re out in the open rather than lurking in the bushes. And right now, the majority of ducks are right here where we can find them, not off breeding in the remote arctic.

My first lesson was that not all waterfowl are ducks. Living near a wildlife refuge, I knew about American Coots (I think of them as pond chickens) and cormorants. But grebes and gallinules were totally new to me, I’d never seen a loon, and on a visit to the coast, I could barely make out a number of “bobbing black blobs” at the far range of my binos.

I wasn’t yet ready to distinguish between Canada and Cackling Geese, Trumpeter vs. Tundra swans, non-breeding Eared vs. Horned Grebes, or winter loons. Instead, I was focused my attention on the easy-to-see ducks.

My second realization was that there are a lot of ducks. I had started birding in June, and all summer I saw Mallards, Mallards, and more Mallards. (Other species summer in our area, but I hadn’t found them yet.) I began to wonder if the field guide authors had invented the rest. Then fall arrived, and all the males disappeared! It wasn’t until fall turned to winter that I discovered that not all ducks are Mallards. I began adding all these new species to my life list.

I slowly became aware that different ponds and reservoirs had very different duck populations. Some species preferred shallow water—Gadwalls, Northern Shovelers, Wood Ducks, and the ubiquitous Mallards, to name a few. These were the “dabbling” ducks, those who feed head-down on pond weed and invertebrates.

Scaups, Ring-necked Ducks, Redheads, and mergansers, on the other hand, were among the diving ducks, those who leap head-first into the water to search for fish and other prey. These ducks were found on deeper lakes and reservoirs.

Size mattered too. Teals are small. Mallards, pintails, and Gadwalls are large. Scaups are somewhere in the middle.

Once I had figured out which male duck was which, I started to learn the females. It was helpful that the transformation into breeding plumage was accompanied by the pairing off of romantic-minded couples. Female pintails lack the huge spike of the males, but their tails do end in a sharp point. Female shovelers were obvious, as they shared their mates’ spatulate bill.

I learned the easier ones, then dug in on more puzzling species. My early successes were encouraging, and soon I was IDing (most) ducks like a pro. I like the challenge—it keeps birding fresh and my mind sharp. After all, if it was all easy, where’s the fun in that?

Quiz answers: top—American Wigeon; top left—American Coot, top right (2 pictures)—Gadwalls, bottom left—Pintail, bottom right—Northern Shoveler.

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