Tips to Improve Your Waterfowl Species ID Imagine a beautiful, crisp fall morning. The air is quiet, and you can see your reflection in the mirrored surface of the lake you’re perched on. Suddenly, you hear the sound of whistling wings above your head, approaching your decoys fast. Are you confident that you’ll be able to quickly identify what species of waterfowl is overhead in the dim light of dawn? Or is there a little voice of doubt in the back of your head? Shoot or don’t shoot?! Having good waterfowl identification skills is obviously important to make sure you don’t exceed your bag limits. But it’s also just a skill that you should work to develop further each year. If you call yourself a hard core duck hunter (or any hunter, for that matter), you should work to master your craft over time and learn as much about your game animal as possible. That’s what ethical hunting and being hard core is all about. You respect the animal enough to make good hunting decisions. Plus, knowing your ducks from a distance is just plain fun – it’s an enjoyable hobby to sit in your duck boat and just identify ducks, to say nothing about hunting them! Now let’s dive in (forgive the pun) to the juicy tips and techniques. Waterfowl Identification Guide There are several important clues that can help you become the Sherlock Holmes of waterfowl identification. Size, color, body shape, speed of flight, flying action, feeding patterns, vocalizations, and even habitat can all be used to identify ducks on the wing or from greater distances. You’ll likely be familiar with at least some of these if you’ve duck hunted before. But even the seasoned duck hunters out there will find some good information to learn and review in here. Habitat While habitat is not a perfect indicator and it certainly isn’t true all the time, you can use this as a rough guideline to add to the other waterfowl identification evidence below that you observe. Generally, puddle ducks inhabit shallow marshes, flooded fields, and smaller rivers more often than not, and feed by dabbling or tipping over to eat aquatic vegetation or invertebrates. Puddle ducks take off from the water by seemingly springing right into the air with very little runway. If you’re hunting in one of these areas, there’s a pretty safe bet you can narrow your identification to puddle ducks. Common puddle ducks include mallard, wood duck, pintail, widgeon, gadwall, shovelers, teal (blue- and green-winged, cinnamon), and black ducks. source: http://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/waterfowl/puddle_ducks.html Diving ducks prefer larger and deeper waters such as open lakes or very large rivers. They often feed by diving and fully submerging their bodies to feed on fish, crustaceans, shellfish, and aquatic plants. Since their feet are further back on their bodies, diving ducks often need to build up speed by running across the water before becoming airborne. Common puddle duck species include canvasbacks, redheads, ring-necks, scaups, ruddy ducks, and common/hooded/red-breasted mergansers. Sea ducks are a type of diving duck that spends part of its life in a marine or estuarine environment, but will occasionally spend time on larger freshwater lakes elsewhere. They include buffleheads, goldeneyes, scoters, and eiders. Size and Action These are attributes that you’ll be able to identify from furthest away. You should easily be able to notice if a flock is flying steadily or zig-zagging, and size will become more obvious once you’ve seen a few different sized ducks. As far as typical flying patterns, mallards, wigeons, and pintails all generally form loose groups in flight, while teal species and shovelers tend to blaze by at record speeds in smaller, more compact groups. Swans typically fly in pairs and appear to flap their wings very slowly for their body size. Geese will often form very large flocks, and assume V-shaped formations. Shapes You’ll be able to notice the silhouettes of heads, wings, and tails as they get closer to your concealed blind or boat. You should be able to pick out if a duck has a hood over their head, how long their necks are compared to their bodies, and how long their tails are. Diving ducks often have short tails and large feet farther back on their bodies to help them swim better underwater. The feet are visible in flight, and they will even use their feet as rudders to help them steer. source: http://www.waterfowl-identification.com Colors When ducks or geese get within shotgun range, you should certainly be able to see their colors, maybe further away if the light is right. You’re not only looking for the body or head color, but also the bills, feet, wings, and the speculum (the wing patch that is generally different colored). Basically, you’re looking for any dominant color that seems to stand out. Sounds Waterfowl species make all kinds of sounds when feeding – obviously you know that, since we use duck calls to attract them. However, many species also make noises while flying. For example, flying wood ducks often move with a swish in the air and make vocalizations like a cre-e-e-k when alarmed. Flying goldeneyes make a whistling sound, while canvasbacks make a more steady rushing sound. In the case of geese and swans, you may well hear them before you see them, and there’s very little mistaking that sound. Wrapping Up This may seem like a lot to remember, and it is. Don’t expect to recall every detail listed here on your first trip out this duck hunting season. As we said, this is something you work at over many years, getting better each hunting trip. If you can notice one new observation each time about the way the ducks are flying or the body shape, you’ll be that much better the next time. Try taking advantage of many online resources, which includes quizzes to test your knowledge. Waterfowl identification takes practice like any skill, so you need to put in your time on the water or in the marsh to get better. And I bet it won’t take much convincing to get you to do that.