Better Birding: Waterfowl Part 2.

Duck, Duck, Duck, Goose.

As with the previous post, I noted the North American biodiversity regarding our species, and I hope you have taken some time to review those species that seem unfamiliar.

Where do we start in our understanding of waterfowl diversity and how will it inform our identification? There have been suggested various grouping for species based on some semi-ecological taxonomic categories. We can organize basic waterfowl diversity into swans, geese, whistling-ducks, dabbling ducks, diving ducks—diving sea ducks, and mergansers. This organization scheme will allow us to approach learning waterfowl in a systematic way.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese taking flight at the Bosque del Apache NM


Two species occur in our area: Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and Fulvous Whistling-Duck, both are largish, long-legged (in fact they extend past the tail while in flight), and long-necked ducks, with largish heads for their neck. The sexes are similar. This group is mostly tropical to subtropical and tend to be found in well-vegetated wetlands.

Fulvous Whistling-Duck

Fulvous Whistling-Duck


Three two common species: Trumpeter Swan and Tundra Swan and with a rare Eurasian species Whooper Swan visiting Alaska and the west. Across the US there are well-established populations from the introduced Mute Swan. All of these species are the huge– they are the largest of the North American waterfowl, being beautiful all white, long-necked waterbird. So in general ID frequently relies on bill shape and color associated with the face and bill. The sexes are similar.

Tundra Swan

Wintering Tundra Swans at a great distance at Back Bay NWR


Similar to swans in that geese tend to be large waterfowl with longer necks than typical ducks. The sexes are similar, with large areas of black and white areas. There are seven commonly encountered species: Canada Goose, Cackling Goose, Brant, Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, and the Greater White-fronted Goose.

Canada Goose

A Happy Canada Goose at Newport News Park


Ducks are the most diverse of our waterfowl which are classically divided into broad categories based on behaviors related to food getting. The ecologist has long noted that competition for limited resources such as food is major drivers in the evolution of many behaviors and strategies to limit competition. One such ecological behavior set is that of resource partition, that is species utilizing in different microhabitats, on different food, at different depths, at different times of day etc. that result in the non-overlapping use of food resources. We can observe resources partitioning regarding the foraging behaviors of ducks in the form of some classically appealed groupings.

Dabbling Ducks

Sometimes referred to also as a pond or puddle ducks, these species tend to feed by dabbling at the surface or by tipping up rather than diving (this feeding style limits feeding competition). Frequently species in this group have colorful iridescent speculums. Dabblers include Mallard, Mexican, Duck, Mottled Duck, Black Duck, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Gadwall.

Mottled Duck

South Texas Wetland with Mottled Duck

Diving Ducks

These species are more hydrodynamic than dabblers, with larger feet found more posterior on the body which you can detect when they walk on the solid substrate (which is infrequently). These species tend to be a bit heavier body in contrast to dabblers, and need to have a running start for flight; as dabblers can take-off vertically.  Diving Ducks species include Canvasback, Redhead, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, and American Widgeon (sometimes considered a dabbler).

New Mexico_2011 216

Ring-necked Duck



Often included within the divers are the stiff-tailed ducks: Ruddy Duck and Masked Duck.

Ruddy Duck

Just keep Swimming Ruddy Duck

However, we have not included a number of species of North American Ducks. The following are ducks that do dive but are not classically considered consider “divers” rather are referred to as sea ducks. Including Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Steller’s Eider, Spectacled Eider, Common Eider, King Eider, Common Eider, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye as well as the Mergansers- Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, and Red-breasted Merganser (which are sometimes treated as their own group).

Common Eider

Coastal Maine with a set of Common Eider

View the following image and think about how you would go about IDing this bird?

If you have some limited experience with birding you undoubtedly are glad I included a color image, as we are typically focused on field marks related to color patterns and markings. But we needed a well-rounded approach that includes size, shape, markings, color patterns, behavior, habitat, and calls. This takes some time and focuses to view all aspects when identifying waterfowl.  So what species is the unknown above?

H DuckI recognize that this is not always a problem and even under crappy conditions you can still make an ID. above is a heavily cropped image I took back in 2011 in Yellowstone National Park during a snowstorm, having spotted the ducks while driving in the park. My point they just stood out. This is not always the case and frequently you do not always have the best views or conditions.


So how can we address what we need to know to learn more about waterfowl and ID them? There are three species in the picture below with representatives of both sexes. This is often the case when viewing waterfowl as many species are gregarious and for us are packed into suitable habitats. So you need to identify one bird at a time, while there may be many of the same species-pay attention to each bird. Try and narrow the bird into one of the previously noted broad categories such as ” oh a dabbler”. When viewing the birds look to recognize three or more aspects or clues to identify the species. There are 9,000 or so species of birds, looking for a few clues help you go from thousands to hundreds to 50 to 20 and frequently 5 or so when you start looking for more suitable cues to an identification and with some skill and luck you have your ID.

East Texas Wetland Christmas

Unknown species of ducks 

Looking at the photograph above what do you notice about those factors we said to note when viewing any one specimen, equally, comparsion is a good thing to do. So while you are IDing one individual it is ok to compare it to others. So what are the size, shape, markings, color patterns, behavior, and habitat, for your duck?

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 10, 2018, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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