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Waterfowl are Heading North! Take Our Ducks in Flight Quiz.
By Dawn Hewitt
Managing Editor | Bird Watcher's Digest
Waterfowl are among the earliest migrants to head north each spring, starting as early as mid-February. Daylight length, rather than weather, seems to be the prime motivator behind their urge for traveling. The date range to begin looking for various species, of course, depends upon where you live. Those who live in the South, especially in the Southeast, have been enjoying most of these species all winter. Soon, though, they'll lose most of them for six months or so. For those who live farther north, waterfowl will begin passing through or returning to breed soon. Peak waterfowl migration is in usually in late March, so now is a great time to practice your skills at IDing ducks (and geese) in flight.
For a primer on identifying ducks at a distance, you can download Bob Hines' classic guide, Ducks at a Distance, for free »
Mystery Duck #1
The long neck and long, slender wings of this species give it an elegant look. Look for a pale bar along the trailing edge of the wings. The male is easy to ID, with its long, pointed tail, white breast and neck stripe, and brown head.
Hint: The species' name comes from the shape of the male's tail in breeding plumage.
Mystery Duck #2
You'll probably notice a flash of white on this bird's upper wing as it flies—a much larger and bolder patch on the male, a bar on the female. Look for a small, gray bill, and a broad green eye stripe on the male.
Hint: The male in breeding plumage has a distinctive white forehead.
Mystery Duck #3
The small size of this duck is an important identifier. Look for a rusty head on a stocky body. Its quick wingbeats make its flight appear fast.
Hint: Look for a green speculum on the wing, bordered by white.
Mystery Duck #4
Although six inches longer than the bird above, this duck is also stocky. In flight, look for pale underwings, and a small, white speculum bordered in black.
Hint: From afar or close-up, even the male in breeding plumage is a drab gray, but note the black butt.
Mystery Duck #5
Several ducks have a dark head and breast, a dark tail, and in between, a pale belly. This is one of them—an "Oreo duck." This one has a dark back, and a tall, peaked crown. In flight, look for a long, gray bar running the length of the upper wing. The underwing is grayish, too.
Hint: Many people think this duck should be named for its distinctive colorful bill pattern, not for an invisible pattern on its neck.
Mystery Duck #6
This is another "Oreo duck," dark front and back, but with a pale belly. Like the bird above, it has a long, pale bar running the length of the upper wing, but this species' is much whiter, and the male's back is gray, not black.
Hint: This bird's head shape is much rounder than its smaller cousin, with which it is often confused.
Mystery Duck #7
Another tiny duck, the male is white on the breast, flanks, and belly; its head looks too large for its body. Even in flight, you'll notice that the upper rear quadrant of its head is white; the rest is dark. On the female, the white cheek patch is smaller and oval, but still obvious. In flight, look for a large, white area mid-wing on males.
Hint: The head pattern of the male is a bit like a hooded merganser.
Mystery Duck #8
This duck has a long, slender body and long, slender wings. Note the thin red bill and the distinctive white collar. If you see this duck swimming, you'll notice a "bad haircut" on both the male and female.
Hint: This duck is a fish-eater, which helps explain its un-duck-like bill.
When the winter weather breaks, get outside to look for signs that spring is on its way!By Bill Thompson, III
Editor | Bird Watcher's Digest
Most people can't wait for spring to arrive, and backyard bird watchers seem especially eager for the Earth, on its annual trek, to lean closer to the sun. This subtle planetary realignment will bring warmer weather in the next few months to those of us in the northern hemisphere. Warmer weather brings us many of our favorite things: birds, flowers, butterflies, and best of all, an end to being cooped up inside the house during the worst of the winter weather: bitter temperatures, deep snow, ice, sleet, or just dreary, gray skies.
When the winter weather breaks, it's time to get outside to look for other hopeful signs that spring is on its way. In honor of those first tentative steps we take out the weather-proofed door, squinting skyward at the bright yellow orb we thought had deserted us, here are my Top Ten Backyard Signs of Spring. Please forgive me if your backyard does not have all 10 of these signs. Look on the bright side: Winter is almost over! Spring is nearly here!
10. Songbird songs. The first species that I noticed tuning up this year was a tufted titmouse singing Peter, Peter, Peter in our orchard on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late January. His song was my first aural reminder that winter will eventually fade. Since then I've heard house and purple finches, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows, and northern cardinals.
9. Woodpeckers drumming. On our farm we hear woodpeckers drumming in early spring and it continues until the following fall. Woodpeckers use drumming both as a territorial announcement and as a part of spring courtship. Some suburban woodpeckers have discovered the great resonance of chimney flues and drainpipes, much to the dismay of slumbering human homeowners. Among our drummers are pileated, red-bellied, hairy, and downy woodpeckers, and northern flicker. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers tap our birch trees each spring but do not stick around to breed. And red-headed woodpeckers (my favorite birds) nest in a small colony just a couple of miles away. We've tried to lure the red-headeds to our property with ears of corn, but so far we've only had a few, too-short visits.
8. Clumps of raptors/pairs of raptors. Last weekend we went out birding with the kids, and we saw 10 red-tailed hawks in 4 hours. Some of these are our local year-round residents, some are winter visitors, and some are birds of passage, returning north to set up territories, having spent the winter to the south of us. Late winter and early spring are excellent times for raptor watching. Many of our resident red-tailed and red-shouldered hawk pairs are already courting each other, complete with acrobatic flights, dives, and piercing screams.