Better Birding: Waterfowl Part 1.

As we move forward in learning to be a better birder, we will take the approach of being a more informed birder regarding the science of ornithology as well as building identification skill sets.  The following will attempt to bridge both simultaneously.

Waterfowl appears to be a rather straightforward subject on the surface, but in fact, the term is a bit misleading. Waterfowl are sometimes broadly applied to all birds that inhabit waterways, however, most of us have a restricted application to those birds belonging to the bird Order: Anseriformes. This taxon (or taxonomic group) is a considered a basal (“primitive”) lineage of birds —see the two recent following evolutionary trees below.  These trees represent two research groups’ hypothetical reconstruction of bird evolution. While both are based on different data and varied analytical tools, both show that Anseriformes (the waterfowl) to be a very old and ancient group of birds.

Prum, R. O., Berv, J. S., Dornburg, A., Field, D. J., Townsend, J. P., Lemmon, E. M., & Lemmon, A. R. (2015). A comprehensive phylogeny of birds (Aves) using targeted next-generation DNA sequencing. Nature526(7574), 569-573.
Jarvis, E. D., Mirarab, S., Aberer, A. J., Li, B., Houde, P., Li, C., … & Suh, A. (2014). Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds. Science346(6215), 1320-1331.

Within the Anseriformes, there are three extant families: Anhimidae (the screamers), Anseranatidae (the magpie goose), and Anatidae (waterfowl). The Anatidae is the most diverse with over 155 species ( Tree of Life: Anatidae) with about 59 species occurring (both native, introduced, or migratory vagrants) in North America (All About Birds Waterfowl)

Take-home: Waterfowl are a very old group of birds, that have been evolving since the Late Cretaceous (100.5–66 mya) [likely a good bit earlier]. Waterfowl all shared a rather unified generalized body plan, that is if it looks like a duck…. Within the bird order to which they belong, waterfowl are the most biodiverse and varied.

The following is a summary following lower classification schemes (note that tribes [ending in ini] are not frequently included when learning basic Linnaean classification, but they are a means of organizing various genera within a subfamily). It should be noted that there are a number of conflicting recent studies that creates some confusion regarding the organization (see an in-depth discussion here) within this family and a clear phylogeny of the Anatidae is wanting.

Below is a list of the North American species, which will act as a starting point to increase our familiarity with the various species.

North American Waterfowl-Anatidae 

Dendrocygninae: Whistling-Ducks

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Dendrocygna autumnalis

Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Dendrocygna bicolor

Anserinae: Geese, Swans

Anserini: Geese, Swans

*Mute Swan, Cygnus olor

Whooper Swan, Cygnus cygnus

*Trumpeter Swan, Cygnus buccinator

*Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus


Tundra Swan

*Brant, Branta bernicla

*Canada Goose, Branta canadensis

Barnacle Goose, Branta leucopsis

*Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii

Bar-headed Goose, Anser indicus

Emperor Goose, Anser canagicus

*Snow Goose, Anser caerulescens

*Ross’s Goose, Anser rossii

Graylag Goose, Anser anser

Lesser White-fronted Goose, Anser erythropus

*Greater White-fronted Goose, Anser albifrons

Taiga Bean-Goose, Anser fabalis

Pink-footed Goose, Anser brachyrhynchus

Tundra Bean-Goose, Anser serrirostris

Anatinae: Ducks

Tadornini: Shelducks and Sheldgeese

Egyptian Goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca

Mergini: Sea Ducks

*Harlequin Duck, Histrionicus histrionicus

*Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis

Steller’s Eider, Polysticta stelleri

Spectacled Eider, Somateria fischeri

Common Eider

Common Eider Fort Monroe, Hampton VA.

King Eider, Somateria spectabilis

*Common Eider, Somateria mollissima

*Surf Scoter, Melanitta perspicillata

*White-winged Scoter, Melanitta fusca

*Black Scoter, Melanitta americana

*Bufflehead, Bucephala albeola

*Common Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Smew, Mergellus albellus

*Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus

*Common Merganser, Mergus merganser

*Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator

Oxyurini: Stiff-tailed Ducks

Ruddy Duck

Wintering Ruddy Duck

*Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis 

Masked Duck, Nomonyx dominicus

Cairinini: Perching

Muscovy Duck, Cairina moschata

Domesticated Muscovy Duck in South Texas

Domesticated Muscovy Duck in South Texas

*Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

Aythyini: Diving Ducks

*Redhead, Aythya americana

*Canvasback, Aythya valisineria

Tufted Duck, Aythya fuligula

*Ring-necked Duck, Aythya collaris

*Greater Scaup, Aythya marila

*Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis

Anatini: Dabbling Ducks

*Blue-winged Teal, Spatula discors

Cinnamon Teal, Spatula cyanoptera

Baikal Teal, Sibirionetta formosa

Garganey, Spatula querquedula

*Northern Shoveler, Spatula clypeata

*Gadwall, Mareca strepera


Gadwall on a clear fall day in Newport News Park

*Eurasian Wigeon, Mareca penelope

*American Wigeon, Mareca americana

*Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

*American Black Duck, Anas rubripes

Mexican Duck, Anas diazi

Mottled Duck, Anas fulvigula

Eurasian Teal, Anas crecca

*Green-winged Teal, Anas carolinensis

White-cheeked Pintail, Anas bahamensis

*Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

This is a complete list of the waterfowl in North America including a few common escapee-species. In our area, we have 35* or so species to worry about learning. Being located along the Atlantic flyway provides us with a wonderful opportunity to watch waterfowl closely and experience the diversity in both form and ecology. Our area is diverse in habitats affording the chance to observe various species, from freshwater swamp species such as the Wood Duck to the marine species such as the Long-tailed Duck.

If you would like to seek out waterfowl in our area, you will need (currently) some warm clothes, a good pair of binoculars and a spotting scope or a buddy with a spotting scope. While a spotting scope is not required it does make distant open water searching easier and dismisses some of the frustration of not being able to see the birds. Notice I said some frustration… far too many birds are too far to be seen well and most not in great detail, but even these dark duck-shaped blobs having learning value (pick up a copy of Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching). For nearby areas of study, I suggest Sandy Bottom Nature Park in Hampton as an area to explore as well as Newport News Park, in Newport News. Both have varied wetlands and offer the potential for the close study of a variety of species. Other areas that are a must to visit are Fort Monroe in Hampton to search out loons, diving ducks, and the potential for some arctic visitors such as eiders as well as Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach, which is a rather reliable place for buffleheads as well as brants. If you are game for some adventure then a visit to the oceanfront in Virginia Beach (this site contains a number of important areas to bird in Virginia Beach) or along the coast at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge is worth the trek. Please note that to ensure birds experience limited stress, Back Bay NWR is closed to foot traffic at this time of year, though they do hold tram tours. One other area to immerse yourself in waterfowl study is the eastern shore of Virginia in particular Chincoteague NWR where you can make your study in the warmth of your car on the auto tour and with roadside ocean access points and bays. Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention two areas that were very influential in my development as a birder, those being Blackwater NWR (near Cambridge, Maryland) and Bombay Hook NWR (near Smyrna, Delaware). Both of these spots added the majority of my waterfowl to my life list and opened my eyes to the interesting and often comical feeding behaviors of waterfowl.

While in the field watch the birds, take notes, draw and take pictures of what you observe. Time spent in the field is never wasted and while you may not see a rarity, add any species to your life list, or stay toasty warm- you will gain knowledge and familiarity: two key aspects of growing as a birder. But with these encounters, there is often a need for context. To gain perspective on identification and biology you can build your understanding of natural history which is easily had with a bit of reading. Note that being a good natural historian or better birder is understanding that learning is a marriage between books and real-life experiences, each in a dance that informs the other. I have found enormous joy in observing a behavior and later finding it given a name and explanation in some text, or perhaps more substantial is reading of a behavior or aspect of ecology and armed with this knowledge quickly recognizing it in the field.

DSC_0021 (4)

I suggest a few resources to help start your studies.

Waterfowl Identification: The LeMaster Method by Richard LeMaster. I used this small book when I was taking my wildlife management courses, and while there is a slight bias towards hunters (in common name use), the information contained throughout its pages are immense (such as typical flying height).

Ducks at a Distance A Waterfowl Identification Guide. A great old publication from the US Fish and Wildlife that help to ID waterfowl in flight at a large distance. You can find a PDF of this publication here.

Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight by K. Behrens and C. Cox. A wonderful resource that is a bit much to carry in the field but in a car or nearby while scanning open waters the weight is of little concern. Full of needed ID details that focus on birding by impression and helping with understanding distant birds that lack in typical field guide details.

Why Ducks Do That, by Chuck Petrie. A very informative book written by a waterfowl biologist with the amateur in mind. A bit basic but has some wonderful details that are captivatingly presented.

Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America: 2-vol. set by Guy Baldassarre.  A hefty set of tomes that is meant for those really invested in learning more about waterfowl. A very well done text with original artwork as well as magnificent photographs bringing to life each species in vivid detail; with a synthesis of the expansive biology that is easy to digest and pull meaning from.

The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl by R. Crossley,‎ P. Baicich,‎ J. Barry. I just got this book for the holidays, and I am very pleased with it. I am a big fan of the Crossley ID guides and this one does not disappoint. Much like the raptor volume, this text has built-in quizzes and chances to learn and test your identification, a feature I really enjoy. This book is well done and is not too weighty to be taken into the field. My volume came with a pocket fold-out guide, though this guide had only species names and pictures. Even though no ID details were present, it is a great quick reference for that species on the edge of your tongue. This pocket guide would be improved with just a few words on ID and page references back to the text proper. What I also enjoy in this text, is the duality of the text. Easy to use for beginners but with enough details for those who want to learn more about waterfowl ID (and honestly a lot of biology is also in this book). An informative treatment of plumage and molts as well as a feature on aging and sexing waterfowl. Another feature that should have wild appeal and marketability is the in-hand section that is useful to hunters and wildlife managers.  Of course, the overall plates are wonderful showing all the needed details to make identification across seasons, sexes, and plumages. But the species accounts provide a wealth of information from a year in the life of each species, sounds, diet and feeding behavior, nesting, to details on hunting and conservation statuses. This is really a great book to start your journey to understanding waterfowl.

Species, Age and Sex Identification of Ducks Using Wing Plumage. Another older publication from the US Fish and Wildlife that is rather formal and scientific but if you are interested in developing those skills via some formal reading may provide a bit of a background on how wing plumage and sexing is accomplished.

About DrDashphd

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Hampton University. I am an entomologist in my main research focus, but consider myself a broadly trained zoologist, with interest in evolution and ecology. My main research focus is ant ecology and systematics. But, a majority of my time is spent on my passion for science education. This blog is to help me express the desire to educate others about the natural world.

Posted on January 2, 2018, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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