With today’s bag limit restrictions, it is vital to know what species is coming to your decoys.
Experience is the best teacher, but home study and preseason field observation can help hone your ability to identify ducks in the air. The best place to start is with a good identification guide. A few waterfowl organizations offer pocket identification guides that provide a wealth of information about waterfowl recognition. Web sites are another good option for photos and even videos of ducks and geese in flight.
What distinguishes the various species of ducks? Certainly, most ducks are easy to identify in the hand, but not always. The ring-necked duck closely resembles the lesser scaup or bluebill, except for the ring around its bill. Other look-alikes include hen mallards, hen pintails and black ducks. Taken alone, they can be confused, but the pintail’s bill is blue and lacks a speculum, while the black duck’s plumage is much darker and the speculum is purple with no white lines.
Those hunting during early seasons, especially in Canada, might encounter eclipse plumage — the period between the molt and full-colored plumage. Too, juveniles are not fully colored. Drake mallards can be mistaken for hens until a closer look reveals the beginning of a green head and chestnut-colored breast. Bill color is another key to identify the sex of an early-season mallard. Hens have orange bills, while drakes sport a yellowish bill. Perhaps the easiest to misidentify for the novice is the drake mallard and drake shoveler. Both have a green head and other similar plumage, but the shoveler’s extra-wide bill is a dead giveaway.
On the wing, several factors can provide clues to identification: Profile or silhouette, habitat, wingbeat, flight characteristics, color, flock characteristics and sound. Singly and combined, they allow us identify flying ducks.
Military pilots constantly study profiles of enemy ships and aircraft. Similarly, many species of waterfowl have characteristic profiles that enable in-flight identification. Perhaps the best example is the canvasback. The can’s long neck, coupled with its sleek, triangular head tapering to a long bill, sets it apart from other ducks. Redheads have a higher, rounded forehead.
We have problems, though, when it comes to mallards, gadwalls and black ducks because of similarities in silhouettes. Wood ducks fly in a more upright position, and the feathered crest — more prominent in the male — of both hen and drake make them easy to identify. Mergansers have a crested head, but their longer necks and slimmer bodies tip off the observer.
Consider the Habitat
Some ducks prefer open water, while other frequent marshes and still others stick primarily to salt water. I’ve shot canvasbacks on open water and in a little cut on a tidal marsh, just as I’ve shot mallards on broad expanses of water and on brackish coastal marshes. In general, though, puddle ducks prefer fresh water, small ponds, pockets, guts and areas such as flooded timber. Generally, diving ducks such as bluebills, canvasbacks, redheads, ring-necked ducks, goldeneyes and buffleheads like open water, large bays and broad rivers.
Diving ducks eat aquatic vegetation and invertebrates. Eiders use their bills to crack clams. Because of their diet, you are more likely to encounter divers on open water. Similarly, puddle ducks prefer grain and plants. In Canada, puddle ducks are mostly hunted in harvested grain fields, where they come in droves to eat. In the United States, hunters will often flood picked corn or soybean fields, where ducks will concentrate to eat. In Arkansas, flooded pin oak groves or flats attract mallards, gadwalls and wood ducks to feast on water-soaked acorns. Puddle ducks eat some aquatic vegetation but, given the choice, prefer grain.
You wouldn’t expect to find bluebills in timber or gadwalls landing in large expanses of open water. Knowing what ducks frequent the habitat you hunt can help narrow down the choices when identifying incoming ducks.
Ducks are underpowered when it comes to wing size, so they must beat their wings fast to remain aloft. Divers have smaller wings than puddle ducks, so they must beat them much faster than puddle ducks.
Diving ducks often skim the water as they fly, and when they take off, they run along the water a short distance to gain air speed.
Like geese when they land, diving ducks use their large feet as rudders while in flight, and we can often see them. Puddle ducks don’t seem to extend their feet in flight, although they do use them for extra stability and steering when landing.
Puddle ducks, on the other hand, have larger wings. When they fly, their wingbeats are slower than divers. Unless they’re presented side by side, this comparison isn’t as helpful as some of the other traits, but with practice, the difference in wingbeats is apparent. Too, puddle ducks normally jump or spring into the air, as their larger wings allow them to become instantly airborne. Because they prefer small pockets of vegetation to rest and feed, jumping into the air is essential to their habitat preference.
Diving ducks fly primarily in lines, although bluebills, ringnecks and redheads often ball up as they cross the decoys and will seem to be always changing places while in flight, reminiscent of a bunch of young children walking down a street.
Puddlers seem a bit more organized in flight, often flying in pairs. Black ducks fly in twos and threes, and their stark white underwings show even in poor light. Teal come at you in knotted flocks with their afterburners on as they buzz the decoys. Mallards fly in loosely bunched flocks, although they and others can adopt the familiar V-formation when covering long distances.
Ideally, every incoming duck would sport plumage worthy of a mount, and the sun would shine brightly to reveal all of the color of the bird. However, we often hunt in fog, low light and early enough in the season so the ducks haven’t grown their brightest feathers.
Still, knowing which ducks have light bellies and white underwings can be important, because you are often looking at the undersides of incoming ducks. Mallards have distinctly white underwings that seem to glimmer in early sunlight, while redheads, bluebills and ringnecks look black and light gray in low light. The flash of powder blue wings reveals teal, just as white wing tops give away a bufflehead.
Use Your Ears
Mallards talk the most. You can often hear them chattering as they swing overhead. Hens will emit single quacks, and the low buzz of drakes is also evident. Other species are not as vocal on the wing. Occasionally, I’ve heard bluebills and canvasbacks make their chattering call as they skim the water.
Wood ducks make an unmistakable cry. Pintails and wigeon also emit unique peeps and whistling notes in flight. The nasally, high-pitched quacks of teal become another calling card, although teal generally aren’t as vocal in flight.
The sounds of wings cutting air can also help identify species. Bluebills and ring-necked ducks dropping from high altitudes can sound like a jet overhead. Also, the distinct whistling sound of goldeneye wings is a dead giveaway, even in thick fog.
With your guidebook and binoculars in hand, visit a nearby refuge or park that attracts ducks. There, you can often see the various species close up, hear their calls, watch them take off, land and fly, and really familiarize yourself with your local species.
When you hunt with an experienced duck hunter, ask the hunter to point out the various ducks on the wing and about the subtleties they use to distinguish different species.
Matching the identifying characteristics to passing ducks will not only increase your knowledge, but also make the art of waterfowling more interesting and fun.
John Taylor is a veteran waterfowl hunter from Lorton, Va.