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The Birds of Winter: Ducks that dive

Which birds might I see today? Ducks that dive

Remember the dabblers and the divers – the two categories into which we group ducks? In an earlier posting we took a look at the dabblers, and in this posting we’ll focus on the divers. All of the species featured here can be found in our valley in winter.

Bufflehead male duck

Our smallest duck is the Bufflehead, only 13 1/2”/~34cm. Males have a large white patch on their dark and sometimes iridescent heads, the rest of the body black and white, while females are brownish with a small white oval streak across the middle of each cheek. Both have small beaks and feed on aquatic vegetation and seeds, crustaceans, and snails. They winter here on small ponds and lake bays wherever there is open water, and in spring will nest in tree cavities, as do most of these small diving species.

Common Goldeneye
Common Goldeneye pair. Male in rear, female in front.

Two kinds of goldeneye can also be found here in winter; Common Goldeneye and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Common Goldeneye males are black and white too, with a mainly white body, black back, and a distinctive white circle on each cheek. Females have brown heads, soft grey sides and again these ducks have small beaks. At 18” or so/~45cm these birds are not large. I have seen them many times in open patches of water on Wood Lake or on Mission Creek in Kelowna, diving for food often at the very edge of the ice.

Barrow's Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye, male

Very similar in size and plumage and also diet are the Barrow’s Goldeneyes; males of this species have a crescent, not a circle, of white on the cheek and more black on the flanks. The pattern has been variously described as “like a comb” or “like piano keys”.

Hooded Merganser
Hooded Merganser, male

One of my favourite ducks is the Hooded Merganser, again about 18”/~45cm in size. This is a pretty duck in breeding plumage with a white crest which the male can lower or raise to attract a female, a rich buffy chestnut colour to the flanks and two distinctive black and white lines running from below the neck to waterline on each side of the bird’s chest. Females of this species are greyish overall but sport a smaller version of the crest in a frosted brown colour. The thin beak is short and pointed. Watching a Hooded Merganser or either of the goldeneye males in courting mode is fun; crests are lowered and raised, heads bobbed, necks bent backwards – it all looks like a jerky dance, but obviously the females like it!

Common Merganser
Common Merganser, pair. Male left, female right.

Common Mergansers are often confused with loons by non-birders, because the birds are large (25”/~63cm) and often seen off-shore along Okanagan Lake or Wood Lake. The male has an all-white body and black head, the female a soft grey body and brownish head, and both have bright red beaks. Sometimes the female looks as though she’s having a ‘bad hair day’, as she does here! Like loons and Hooded Mergansers, these birds are fish eaters. You will often see them cruising in small flocks with their heads in the water scanning below for prey. The beaks of both merganser species are serrated, enabling them to catch and hold a wriggling minnow before eating it.

Lesser Scaup
Lesser Scaup, sleeping pair

A trio of similar species comes next: Lesser and Greater Scaup and Ring-necked Duck. The Scaup have white sides, grey backs and black heads and chests if they are males, darker overall if they are female. A sometimes prominent bump on the back of the crown of the head helps to distinguish lesser from greater, especially when they are asleep. Otherwise it is hard to see the two inches in size difference, 16” or so/~40cm for the lesser and 18”/~45cm for the greater.

Ring-necked Ducks
Ring-necked Ducks. Three males (left) and one female (right)

Ring-necked Ducks are easier to spot as they have a unique white ‘spur’ or ‘tick’ on their forward sides, soft greyish flanks and a rather comical head shape. They are about the same size as the Scaup and often feed with or near them.

Redhead duck
Redhead male duck

Our final two species of diving ducks are somewhat less common here in winter but nonetheless seen every year. Both have red heads, but the head shape is very, very different. Male Redheads, (Redhead being the species name), are compact, attractive ducks with blueish beaks, bright rufous round heads, bright yellow eyes, grey backs and black breasts while their lady friends are neat brown birds. The size is about 19”/~48cm.

Canvasback duck
Canvasback male duck

Canvasbacks are larger at 21”/~53cm. Canvasbacks have a beak shaped like an Olympic ski jump! Seriously. The beak is black, long and curved just like one. The male’s head is dark russet, its flanks very white and its breast also black, while the female is a pale brown. Redheads often form large flocks with Scaup and occasionally Canvasbacks. They feed on aquatic mollusks, snails and some vegetation and can often be seen out in the open water of Okanagan, Wood or Osoyoos Lake.

Common Goldeneye ducks
Common Goldeneye ducks, 2 males displaying

Try practising your bird identification skills by taking a closer look at the ducks of winter. Are they dabbling or diving? Now take a close look at their size, pattern of plumage and beaks. You are on your way…!



Pam Laing, Okanagan birder

1 Comment

  • Wonderful post! Your comparisons (ie. bad hair day) really help with later identification. Always excellent photos as well. Thanks Pam.

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