By Jeremy Schwartz
Autumn has made itself known in our neck of the woods.
I'm wearing more layers to work in the morning, and I now begin my daily commute with scraping a thin layer off ice of my car's windshield. That's one way to get daily calisthenics in, right?
The season change is obvious for different reasons for birders like me. Gone are the brightly-colored male song birds belting out their "mate-with-me" tunes to any females who will listen. Our spring and summer visitors have migrated south, just as the leaves of our neighborhood trees are making their yearly transition to the ground below. Perching birds that do spend the autumn and winter here, such as the American Goldfinch, have transitioned out of their breeding plumage to drabber attire.
But the story is reversed on the ponds and streams of the Pacific Northwest. Autumn for birders represents one of the year’s great transitions.
To paraphrase Bugs Bunny: autumn is duck season.
Most duck species that call the Pacific Northwest home shed their drab late summer colors and step into their striking breeding plumage come September and October. Unlike many other bird species, ducks pair up before they migrate for the winter, meaning autumn is prime time for males attracting a mate.
Splashes of iridescent green. Shades of auburn and caramel. Maybe some purples and blues tossed in for good measure. These colors and more can be found in the feathers of ducks puttering around on lakes , ponds, and streams.
My first autumn of birding, two years ago now, was a goldmine of learning for the novice birder that I was. It’s a time when male ducks look exactly as they do in guidebooks, making them easy to identify. Females of a given species are easier to pick out, too, as they’re either being pursued by or traveling with males of their species.
If anyone reading this even has the slightest interest in beginning birding, autumn is a fantastic time to start. Here are five duck species to be on the lookout for.
Green-winged Teals are the smallest of the so-called dabbling ducks we have in North America. Dabbling here refers to the teal's main feeding method of moving its head from side to side on the surface of the water and using its bill to sift for small bits of food. Such dabbling ducks can also be seen dunking their upper bodies fully under the surface of the water, leaving only their paddling feet sticking up in the air like they're part of a synchronized swimming team.
Full-grown adult female Green-winged Teals can sometimes be mistaken for young Mallards because of their small size. Males in their breeding plumage, however, are hard to overlook.
Green-winged Teal males have an overall auburn or deep red head with a crescent of emerald green around the eye that runs down the side of their head to their neck. Their bill is deep black, standing out against the rest of their face.
The male teal's body is covered in intricately patterned gray feathers, with a sharp white vertical line running about where their shoulder is. It makes me think of a formal uniform jacket with a white epaulette. The male teal's behind is covered in cream-colored feathers with black line separating this color from the rest of the body.
The namesake “green-winged” comes from the patch of green on both the male and female inner wings, which is usually hidden when the bird is sitting on a pond or resting. Look for this patch as the birds fly or flap their wings when sitting or floating on the surface of the water.
The male makes a single sharp whistle note, sometimes repeated three or four times.
Teals will often be seen mixed in with other dabbling ducks, though they tend to be more skittish than other species.
Quick Reference: Green-winged Teal
Males have auburn and green heads with black bills
Female teals are sometimes confused with the young of other species due to their size
Look for them in wetlands and ponds mixed in with other ducks, and listen for the male's whistle-like call
Another common dabbler, American Wigeons frequent the same environments as Green-winged Teals. American Wigeon males have a mottled light gray head with a swath of iridescent green across their eye that extends to the back of their heads.
They sport a bright white patch of feathers on top of their heads, making them noticeable even from a distance. The back of the head is covered in black feathers, giving the appearance (at least to me) of a black mullet. Sorry, wigeons.
The eye appears deep black and bigger than other ducks wigeons often share ponds with. This is because the small feathers around the eye are also black. Wigeon bills are a soft gray with a black tip, suggesting black lip liner. The bodies of males and females are relatively similar, with both sporting warm gray-brown feathers overall with darker wingtips. Males, however, do have solid black behinds bordered by white.
The unusual call of the male is hard to forget. They make an honest-to-goodness squeaky toy sound: a three-part whee-WHEEE-whee that sounds like they're being squeezed by a young child. I couldn't help but laugh the first time I heard multiple males calling their hearts out together. It was like someone was running over a bunch of squeaky toys spread out in a parking lot with a car.
Look for American Wigeons in urban wetlands and ponds, sharing space with both their own kind and other species. If you're lucky, maybe you'll spot a Eurasian Wigeon sharing the waters with its American cousins. Eurasian Wigeons sport a red and cream colored head, with a soft red wash along their chests. They can show up in flocks of American Wigeons this time of year relatively regularly on the Pacific coast of the U.S. Native to Europe, the migration pattern of the Eurasian Wigeon brings them to the U.S. in small numbers from both east and west. Some researchers expect to have breeding populations of Eurasian Wigeons in the states in the not-too-distant future, if one or two don’t exist already.
Quick Reference: American Wigeon
Males have green and gray heads, with darker feathers surrounding the eye and a white patch on the top of the head
Female wigeons share the body coloring of males but lack the multi-colored heads
Look for wigeons in urban ponds and wetlands, and listen for the male's distinctive squeaky-toy call
Next to Mallards, Gadwalls are the duck you're most likely to see on any given urban pond, lake, or wetland. Male Gadwalls bear some of the most understated plumage of all the ducks native to North America and can be easy to overlook.
However, long looks at male Gadwalls in their breeding plumage reveal intricate patterns in brown, gray and black. I like to think of Gadwalls as the ubiquitous character actors of the duck world. Not as flashy as your Chris Hemsworths or George Clooneys, but you see them in everything and they still get the job done.
The feathers on the chest and head of a male Gadwall make me think of those Magic Eye puzzles. Tiny crescents of black and gray intermingle on the chest and subtly fade to an even tighter pattern on the wings. The behinds of males are solid black. Where other species sport a flash of color on the inner wings, Gadwalls carry a simple black patch paired with white.
Male Gadwall heads lack the flash of other species, sporting subtle gray and gray-brown feathers instead. Gadwall heads, by the way, are one of the surest ways to tell female Gadwalls from female Mallards. Seen separately, telling these two apart is rough going. Both are mottled brown overall and have few differentiating features. No wonder Mallards sometimes get busy with female Gadwalls.
I remember going through a minor crisis of birding skill as I struggled to tell female Mallard from Gadwall. But then I started paying closer attention to their heads. Gadwalls generally have squarer heads than Mallards, with less of a slope as the back of the head meets the neck. Additionally, a female Mallard’s bill is usually mottled orange-yellow mixed with black, while a female Gadwall’s bill is typically black rimmed in orange-yellow, sort of like its wearing lipstick. Subtle differences to look for I know, but seeing these two females next to each other (as they are fortunately both often found on ponds and wetlands) really helps.
Quick Reference: Gadwall
Males are intricately patterned in gray, black, and brown, almost standing out because of their drabness
Look to the head shape and bill coloring to tell female Gadwalls from female Mallards
Find Gadwalls on urban ponds and lakes and listen for their rough, husky “quark, quark, quark," compared to the classic “quack” of Mallards
If you're someone who likes their ducks unabashedly cute, the Bufflehead is the one for you. With their large heads and relatively small bodies, Buffleheads are like swimming Black-capped Chickadees. They also tend to dive and move more quickly than their larger cousins.
Male Buffleheads leave behind the emerald greens, browns, and grays discussed above in favor of stark contrast. The bodies of males are covered mostly in crisp white feathers with a large black patching covering most of their backs, sort of like a backpack. The male head is predominantly an iridescent sheen of black, blue, and purple. This pattern is broken up by a white oval-shaped patch that wraps around the back of the head almost from eye to eye. At a distance, the males look predominantly black and white until the sunlight hits the feathers of the head just right, revealing the rainbow of color.
Female Buffleheads are relatively easy to spot, sporting all black bodies and heads save for a small white patch of feathers just below the eye. Look for their small size and for multiple females hanging around a single male on ponds, lakes, and streams.
In addition to the contrasting breeding plumage of the males, Buffleheads are most notable to me for their diving. Small groups of these ducks will sometimes be puttering along the surface of a lake and then all suddenly dip below the water in unison. They keep themselves fed by probing the bottoms of lakes and ponds for small crustaceans.
Long story short: if you see what looked like a black and white flash dive just before you get a good look at it, it was most likely a Bufflehead. Just wait 30 or seconds or so for it to pop up again, though it might reappear feet away from where it dove.
Quick Reference: Bufflehead
Males are a study in black and white, with iridescent feathers on their heads that can shift in color from black to blue to purple depending on the light
Females are mostly black with white patches behind their eyes and along the trailing edges of their wings
Find Buffleheads on lakes and ponds diving for food, often with multiple females to one male
Alright, so you can see Mallards any time of year. Seriously. Find me a body of water, city park, or golf course in North America that doesn't play host to the continent's most common type of duck. But their ubiquity can make it easy to overlook how beautiful they are, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention them here.
The first thing that stands out about the male Mallard is its emerald green head. Let me drop some science on you to hopefully make the common Mallard just a little more interesting. The green found in the head is the result of the very structure of the feathers, rather than simply green pigment found in the feathers. That is, the color is partially determined by the way light interacts with the microscopic structure of the feathers and bounces back into our eyes. This is why the green of Mallard heads, and similar colors in other ducks discussed here, can seem to shift depending on how sunlight is hitting it. Cool, right?
Besides the green heads, male Mallards are notable for the sharp white collar separating their heads from their solid brown chests. A light gray covers the rest of their bodies, ending in a solid black behind. Female mallards are a mottled gray-brown with the hint of a darker brown stripe running from the base of the bill through the eye line to the back of the head.
Both males and females show a striking iridescent blue-purple patch bordered in black and white at the base of their wings, close to their rear ends. This same spot (called the "speculum" for anyone looking for a good Scrabble word) is emerald green in Green-winged Teals, a mix of black and white in American Wigeons and Gadwalls, and mostly white in Buffleheads.
Mallards are difficult to not see on most any urban body of water. Some Mallards may be sporting odd coloration, likely a result of wild Mallards mating with domestic ducks, of which wild Mallards are ancestors. Look for them in large numbers mixed in with different species. Some will likely have little to no fear of humans, thanks to a long history of successfully begging for food from unsuspecting humans.
Quick Reference: Mallard
Males sport iridescent green heads, yellow bills, white collars, and solid brown chests
Females are mottled gray-brown, though both males and females share an iridescent blue-purple wing patch
Try your best to not find Mallards on any urban pond, lake, or wetland. I dare you.
Thanks for making it all the way to the end of this exploration of some of the beautiful ducks autumn in the Pacific Northwest has to offer. No put down your phone or get out from behind your computer and go look for them!