Wildlife: March Madness -- Identifying dabbling ducks

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Though most migratory song birds won't arrive until April or May, March is a great month to tackle waterfowl identification. Binoculars and a field guide are the essential tools.

To find waterfowl, visit wetlands -- lakes, farm ponds, beaver ponds, flooded meadows and rivers, especially near dams. These are the habitats ducks frequent as they head north to nest.

The first thing to notice about a duck is how it behaves on the water. If it feeds on the surface by tipping its hind ends into the air and stretching its neck beneath the water, it's a dabbling or puddle duck. In taking flight, dabblers jump directly upward off the water.

Next week:

The diving ducks likely to be seen in Western Pennsylvania.

If, on the other hand, a duck dives beneath the surface of the water to feed, it's a diver, a group that includes canvasbacks, redheads, ring-necks, scaup, goldeneyes, buffleheads, mergansers and ruddy ducks. Females are dull in color and require some experience to identify, although in the spring they typically are found with drakes of their own species. Here's a brief guide to the key characteristics of the male dabbling ducks you might encounter on local waterways:

Wood duck (1.3 pounds). Sports a conspicuous slick-backed crest, multi-colored gorgeous bird, red eye ring, red bill, white throat and cheek markings.

Mallard (2.4 pounds). Green head, white collar, yellow bill, chestnut breast, curly-cue tail, orange feet and legs, white tail.

American black duck (2.6 pounds). Suggests a very dark hen mallard, note the violet patch (speculum) on the wing, dark tail, yellow-green bill.

Gadwall (2 pounds). Drab, black butt, white belly, white and chestnut patch on wings in flight.

American wigeon (1.6 pounds). White forehead and crown, green mask, white inner wing patch in flight.

Northern pintail (1.8 pounds). Chocolate brown head, white breast with narrow finger extending up neck, long pointed tail.

Northern shoveler (1.3 pounds). Green head, yellow eyes, large spatula-shaped bill, white breast, brown sides, powder blue shoulder patch in flight.

Teal. Two species, both small, blue-winged teal (13 ounces) shows a powder blue shoulder patch in flight and wears an obvious white crescent on the face. Green-winged teal (12 ounces) is the smallest dabbler, chestnut head with green ear patch that extends down the neck, green speculum.

Scott Shalaway is a biologist and author. His other weekly Post-Gazette column, " GETintoNATURE ," is published in the GETout section, available only in the early Sunday edition sold Saturdays in stores. Shalaway can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com and RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033.


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