This time around, we move on from land feeder birds out onto the water, since the next few trips will involve at least some looks at the winter residents of the various ponds, lakes and rivers in the area.  In winter, the ducks which have nested in the more northern areas come down and visit with our resident waterfowl, and it’s always worth getting out and checking over the places they might show up.  I’ve seen Scaup on farm ponds, and Gadwall in small streams, so you never know what you’ll come across, and it’s good to get to know how to pick out the ones which may give you trouble.  We’ll start out fairly easily, with some of the more common ducks around here – but be warned; these ducks are like the Song Sparrow complex we started with!  They all look alike to the eye that’s just starting out!  Let’s see how to figure out what’s what.

First, let’s look at everybody’s friend (especially if you have food), the Mallard.  This common and very gregarious duck is found all over the world, in city parks and country ponds.  It’s been domesticated and bred into a wide variety of forms, from plain white to various ‘Mallard-like’ mixtures of colors and patterns guaranteed to confuse you.  It doesn’t help that Mallards are one of the most unchoosy ducks when it comes to partners, and have been known to hybridize with a range of other ‘dabbling duck’ species.  You may not know what an odd duck happens to be, but if it’s really not in your field guide, there’s an excellent chance that it’s at least part Mallard.

Male Mallards are distinctive – nothing else is going to have their combination of characters, although there are a couple of ducks that have roughly similar looks at first glance.

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Notice the green head, mahogany-colored chest and black rump with a white tail and those two little black curls .  In between, the males are just kind of beige, although in flight they have a nice blue wing patch.  You can see that last picture makes the wing patch look purple, which is because blue isn’t really a color in birds – it’s caused by the refraction of light off those special feathers.  Change the angle that the light bounces off, and it looks like a slightly different color.  This, by the way, is why that green head sometimes looks purple as well.  We’ll run into this again in other birds, too.  NOTE:  Upon reflection, it’s also quite possible that the purple speculum in the last Mallard is a sign of some Black Duck genes, Black Ducks and Mallards being common hybridizers.

Now, there is another duck where the males have a bright green head and large body, but even at a distance, you’ll easily be able to tell it from a Mallard:

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This big, deep-water diving duck and fish-eater is the Common Merganser and is one of the few ducks you’ll encounter on freshwater that’s even bigger than a Mallard.  The green head really stands out in good light, but that also lets you see the bright white body and black-and-white wings, even if you can’t make out the thin red bill.  You’re not too likely to run into these ducks hanging out together, since Mallards are shallow-water, dabbling ducks, but this is just a head’s-up for when you see your first Common Merganser.

The other green-headed duck which may give you a moment’s pause is also a shallow-water dabbling duck, but this one is also easy to tell from a Mallard, despite the green head:

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Look at that big, broad, black bill; it’s very different from the normal-sized yellow bill that male Mallards carry around.  Then there are the colors – Mallards have reddish chests and whitish sides, while these Northern Shovelers have white chests and reddish sides.  Mallards have black rumps, while Shovelers have green rumps, and Shovelers also have green wing patches with a sky-blue front half of the wing.  Shovelers are more commonly found in coastal, marshy waters, but you’ll still find Mallards there.  Mallards can be found in almost every kind of relatively fresh water, shallow water habitat, and they’ll often come up cadging food if you look like a soft touch..

We’ve only looked at the males in this part, but don’t worry – next time we’re going to look at the females, and if you thought the sparrows were tricky, you’re in for a treat!