By Keith Sutton
When it comes to ducks, few states are blessed with the abundance and variety found in Arkansas. Millions of these beautiful birds winter in our state each year, and thousands of hunters go afield to marvel at the breathtaking waterfowl extravaganza.
Learning to identify the Natural State’s two-dozen-plus duck species adds enjoyment to duck hunting. Duck-wise hunters can contribute to their sport by not firing at species needed as breeders to restore the flocks. Being able to identify ducks also adds to the daily bag limit; when extra birds of certain species can be legally harvested, those who identify ducks on the wing come out ahead.
When trying to identify ducks, there are several things to observe. Differences in size, shape, plumage patterns, colors, wing beat, flocking behavior, voice and habitat all help separate one species from another. Is the duck large or small? Is its body long and slender or short and plump? Does it have a crest? Is its bill thin or thick? What color are its wing patches, cap, head, breast, belly, back and tail? Or its eyes, bill and feet?
Does the duck dive underwater when feeding, or does it just tip head-down? Does it patter across the water on takeoff or fly straight up? What type of habitat is it in? By observing these and other characteristics, you will soon be able to distinguish ducks once thought impossible to identify.
It’s impossible to include all the identification characteristics of Arkansas ducks in the space allotted here. Some things, such as voice, are not included, and less common species aren’t listed. For more information, check one of the many excellent identification guides now available.
Dabbling ducks, or puddle ducks, frequent shallow waters such as creeks, ponds and marshes rather than deep lakes and bays. Any duck feeding in croplands will likely be from this group, as dabblers are sure-footed and get about well on land.
Dabblers feed by tipping up rather than diving. When taking flight, they spring directly into the air instead of pattering across the water. Most swim with their tail held clear of the water and have a colorful, iridescent speculum, a rectangular patch at the hind edge of the wing.
Mallards are Arkansas’ most numerous ducks. Some nest in the state and are permanent residents, but most are winter residents only. The largest concentrations occur in the world-famous duck-hunting region in east Arkansas’ Delta, where mallards are the hunter’s favorite.
Male mallards have a green head with white neck-ring, a white tail, chestnut breast, grayish body and yellow bill; females are mottled brown with a whitish tail and mottled orange bill. The speculum on both is metallic violet-blue with conspicuous white borders front and back.
Look for the dark head, white neck ring and contrasting dark chest and light belly on flying drakes. Both drake and hen exhibit the white-bordered speculum. The wing beat is much slower than in most ducks. Flocks often are large.
Wood ducks are found in Arkansas year ’round. They are common in forested stream bottoms and swamps statewide during summer, and primarily in eastern and southern lowlands during winter. The drakes are considered by many to be the most beautiful North American ducks.
Wood ducks have a conspicuous head crest. Males, boldly patterned with iridescent maroon, green and purple, have a distinctive white chin patch and a white-and-red bill. Females are grayish brown with lighter flanks, a white belly and broad white eye-rings. The speculum, or colored wing patch, is blue on both sexes.
On the wing, the wood duck’s white belly contrasts very strikingly with the dark breast and wings. The head is held above the level of the body, and the bill is pointed down at an angle. The short neck and long, square tail are conspicuous. The flight is swift and direct, and flocks are usually small.
The smallest of our ducks, greenwings seldom are observed in Arkansas until mid-October. They may be seen statewide but are most common in lowland areas. They often feed on mudflats, in shallow marshes and in flooded croplands.
Male greenwings have a brown head, spotted tan breast and gray sides. The head turns chestnut-colored and has a green ear patch by early winter, when a white vertical crescent behind the breast also becomes evident. Females are grayish-brown, speckled below. The speculum is green on both sexes.
If a small duck without conspicuous wing colors flies by, it’s probably this species. From below, in flight, the male greenwing shows a light belly. The flight is fast, buzzy and erratic, usually low, with compact flocks wheeling in unison like pigeons.
Pintails are among our wariest ducks. A few may be observed in late August, but most arrive in October and November and have departed by early-April. They are less fond of timbered areas than mallards and are usually seen in croplands.
Pintails are slim, graceful ducks with slender necks. Males have a brown head and white neck with a distinctive white line extending up the side of the head. The breast is white, the speculum is green and the central tail feathers are black and needle pointed. Females are similar to female mallards, but are more slender, with a more pointed tail and a brown speculum bordered with white at the rear edge only.
In flight, the white breast, thin neck and needle tail separate the male from other species. The slender, long-necked shape and light border on the rear of the wings help identify hens.
Bluewings arrive in Arkansas before other migrant waterfowl, sometimes as early as mid-July. They are common in shallow ponds, flooded fields and along rivers by early September. By early December, all but a few stragglers have moved to their wintering grounds farther south.
Bluewings are pint-sized ducks (only greenwings are smaller) with chalky-blue shoulder patches on the front of the wing. The bill is relatively large. Males are grayis
h above, tan spotted with dark below. A white face crescent is present by early winter in adults but usually absent during early teal season. The female is brownish-gray above, pale gray marked with dark below.
The blue wing patch, the most distinguishing flight mark, may look white in poor light. Flight is erratic, and the bluewings’ small size and twisting turns give the illusion of great speed. The small, compact flocks usually fly low and often take hunters by surprise.
Shovelers are among the first ducks to arrive in fall and the last to leave in spring. Some are present by late August, with numbers increasing through September and October and peaking in November. They are common winter residents in the eastern Delta where they frequent flooded farmlands, small ponds and marshes.
Shovelers are small ducks, somewhat larger than teal, and best identified by an extraordinarily large bill. They often are called “spoonbills.” Males are largely black and white with rufous-red belly and sides, white breast and green head (appears black at a distance). Females are mottled brown. Both sexes have chalky-blue shoulder patches and green speculums. On the water, shovelers sit low with the bill pointed downward.
Flying shovelers show an alternating pattern of dark-light-dark-light-dark from head to tail. They have a hump-backed appearance totally unlike other dabblers. Look for the large spoon-shaped bill and large, pale-blue shoulder patches. The usual flight is steady and direct, but the small flocks, usually five to 10 birds, twist and turn like teal when startled.
Widgeon (also “baldpates”) often are seen on marshy ponds in the company of diving birds such as coots and canvasbacks. They also frequent grain fields. They are common in the Arkansas Delta, with the major influx arriving in October and November.
Male widgeons are best identified by their shiny white crown. They are brownish with a gray head, a green ear patch (visible only in good light), and bold white shoulder patches. Females are mottled brown with a gray head and neck, and less distinct, whitish shoulder patches. Both sexes have pale blue feet, a pale blue, black-tipped bill and a green speculum.
Flying widgeon can be recognized at a distance by the large white patch covering the front of the wing. In other ducks with white patches, they are on the hind edge, although the similarly placed blue wing patches of the blue-winged teal and the shoveler often appear white at a distance. From beneath, the sharply outlined, white belly and dark, pointed tail are good field marks. The flight is fast and irregular with many twists and turns.
Found on all continents except South America and Australia, gadwalls have the widest range of any duck. They are common in Arkansas, arriving in the state around mid-October and usually leave in April.
Gadwall drakes are slender gray ducks with a black rump, light brown head and neck, reddish brown shoulders and gray bill. Females are mottled brown with a yellow-brown bill. Both sexes have a white belly, yellow feet and a white speculum. This is the only puddle duck with a white speculum. At a distance, both sexes resemble hen mallards in drab plumage and body size. They also resemble widgeon, which often associate with them when feeding.
In flight, look for male’s black rump and the white speculum on both sexes. A flock of ducks that appears to be composed entirely of mallard hens is most likely to be a flock of gadwalls. Mallard hens rarely associate in flocks during winter. Gadwalls have a slimmer appearance in the air than mallards, but less so than pintails.
Diving ducks, also called sea ducks, are typically birds of large, deep lakes and rivers, coastal bays and inlets. Their speculums lack the brilliance of those on dabblers. Most patter along the water in taking wing. They all dive for food, whereas dabblers rarely dive. They also have a more rapid wingbeat than do dabblers.
This duck might better be named the “ring-billed duck” because the white ring on the bill is a much more prominent field mark than the indistinct neck-ring. They are common migrants and winter residents in Arkansas and are sometimes seen in huge rafts on lakes and streams. Ringnecks resemble scaup but are more likely to frequent marshes, timbered lakes and ponds, and swamps.
Male ringnecks have a black breast and back. The head appears black but has a purple gloss. The sides are gray (sometimes appearing white), and the chestnut neck-ring for which it’s named is seldom visible. On the water, drakes show a vertical white crescent in front of the wing. Hens are brown with a white eye-ring and an indistinct white area near the bill. The most notable characteristics on both sexes are the dark, white-ringed bill and peaked triangular head-shape. The speculum is bluish-gray, and the belly is white.
Ringnecks on the wing can be distinguished from scaup by the black back and gray wing-stripe. They fly swiftly in compact wedges and often land without circling.
Ruddy ducks are fairly common in Arkansas during the winter. The largest numbers occur in the Delta. They are very small, chunky birds, unpatterned except for conspicuous white cheeks. Winter males are grayish-brown with white cheeks, a dark cap and a large, gray-blue bill. Females are similar but with light cheeks crossed by a dark line. Both sexes have a long tail that is often cocked straight up.
Ruddies seldom fly, preferring to escape danger by diving or hiding in vegetation. But once airborne, they are fast fliers with a buzzy flight and quick, bumblebee-like wingbeats. On the wing, they are unpatterned except for the distinctive white cheeks.
Hooded mergansers reside in Arkansas year-round. They are most often seen in small numbers in flooded bottomlands and along wooded lake shorelines.
These are small, slim birds with a showy crest and small, thin bill. Males have a fan-shaped, black-bordered, white crest that is unique among Arkansas water birds. The head, upper parts and two vertical breast stripes are black, and the sides are brown. Females are largely gray-brown in color with a warmer brown head and crest. Both sexes have white underparts and wing patches.
Flying mergansers are recognized by their long-drawn appearance, with bill, head, neck and body in a horizontal line. They are usually seen in pairs or small groups.
Lesser scaup winter in impressive numbers throughout Arkansas. Flocks numbering in the hundreds are common in the open water of lakes and streams. Among Arkansas ducks, lesser scaup have the largest surplus of drakes, which usually outnumber females three to one.
Male scaup have light gray, almost white bodies, blackish chests and a black-appearing, purple-glossed head. Females are dark brown with a distinct white patch at the base of the bill. Both sexes have a broad, white stripe on the trailing edge of the wing. The bill is blue – hence the gunner’s nickname “bluebill.”
Buffleheads are usually found in small numbers on large open waters throughout Arkansas. They are small ducks with puffy heads on a chunky, short-necked body. The white wing patches are conspicuous. Males have a large white head patch extending from the eye over the back of the head. The female is dusky and has a slanting white cheek patch. Buffleheads are sometimes mistaken for hooded mergansers which are very dark instead of very white. Look for the merganser’s spike-like bill.
Buffleheads are among the fastest-flying ducks, with one of the most rapid wingbeats. In flight, the single broad white bands on the wings of males and the white speculum of the females contrast sharply with the dark outer parts of the wings.
(Editor’s Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Hunting Arkansas: A Sportsman’s Guide to Natural State Game. To order autographed copies, send a check or money order for $28.25 to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. Arkansas residents should add sales tax. For credit card orders, log on to www.ccoutdoors.com.)
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