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The Birds of Autumn: Ducks that Dabble

Which Bird might I see today? Ducks that dabble

 A couple of years ago I told you about the ducks that migrate into our area in spring to breed. Today our subject is more ducks, the ones that stay all winter. If you are new to birding you can’t do better than start with the ducks. You might be surprised to hear that the months between October and March are the best time to see them for the following reasons. Ducks are large birds, comparatively speaking; they are often out in the open on ponds, rivers or lakes; and the winter months are the time of year when they wear their ‘courting clothes’, the breeding plumage that displays the clearest species characteristics, attracts a mate and results in breeding next spring.

As you might remember there are two categories into which we group ducks, the dabblers and the divers. First we’ll take a look at the former, and in the winter posting we’ll focus on the diving ducks.

Mallard pair
Mallard pair

Everyone recognizes the ubiquitous Mallard. These are large ducks, at 23”/~58 cm, females a mottled soft brown with a purplish blue speculum (or ‘window’) in her wing.

But we usually think of the males when we think “Mallard”; brilliant green head, chestnut breast, and soft dove-grey sides.

If they weren’t so common we would undoubtedly prize them more for their lovely coloration.

Mallard duck
Mallard male

Tipping up to feed, Mallards can be seen on just about any body of water, from a small puddle in spring to the largest of our lakes. They are the only duck with a curl in the tail.

Kelowna’s City Park, Waterfront Park or Rotary Park are excellent places to see American Wigeon, about 3”/~7.5 cm smaller than the Mallards. Males are a soft pinkish grey on the sides with a black and white rear. The most notable feature, however, is the streak of white across the top of the bird’s head bordered in green. This stripe gave it its old nickname of ‘Bald Pate’.

American Wigeon
American Wigeon pair (male in front, female in rear)

Females are browner with no head stripe. These birds can often be seen grazing on the grass of our parks and green urban spaces.

Green-winged male duck
Green-winged Teal male

Green-winged Teal are small ducks at 14”/~35cm. The speculum on these birds is a brilliant green and so is the head stripe on either side of the crown. A rich chestnut head, mottled grey sides and a distinctive white stripe across the shoulder from neck down to waterline complete the field marks which help identify the species. These Teal overwinter on smaller bodies of water such as Robert Lake in north Glenmore and even some of the ditched creeks such as Mill Creek along Weddell Place in Kelowna’s north end.

Gadwall female
Gadwall female duck

Gadwall are about 20”/~51cm and very elegant dabblers. Look at the fine feathering on the bird’s back, breast and sides. To me it looks like a finely-tailored tweed suit. Gadwall have small heads and on the water look neat and well-proportioned.

Gadwall male
Gadwall male duck

 

 

 

 

The birds have bright orange legs like Mallards.

You will often see these ducks in sheltered bays of our bigger lakes, like Turtle Bay in Winfield, or on smaller bodies of water such as Rotary Marshes on the Kelowna waterfront.

Finally I bring you the Wood Duck, a compact 18.5”/~47cm. The male (foreground) has intense colours of iridescent green on the head, bright red eye and beak, soft blue feathers along the back, a deep plum breast, and beige sides. A non-birder described the shape of the head to me as ‘like a bicycle helmet’, which I thought was very apt. The ‘chin-strap’ of white that runs up the male’s cheek towards its eye is distinctive.

Wood Duck pair
Wood Duck pair (male in front, female at rear)

Females are softer in plumage but very beautiful too in their own way. Wood Ducks breed on small creeks or ponds with overhanging bushes or low trees. In breeding season they are extremely secretive and hard to see, but in the winter months you can find them in many places. I have photographed Wood Ducks in January on the snow and ice at the south end of Wood Lake and on Wilson Creek in Kelowna where this picture was taken this year.

So I encourage you to practise your duck identification skills by taking a closer look at the ducks of winter. They are not all “just Mallards”!

Pam Laing, Okanagan birder

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