Waterfowl don’t always fall into neat species-specific groups
Ducks can’t read hunting magazines or scientific journals. They’ve never paged through the myriad waterfowl publications that divide species and classifications of ducks into tidy categories.
Sometimes, they mix and match. That is, they intermingle, often because they share a roost or hot feeding area. Seeing gadwalls and wigeon together is common. The same goes for mallards and pintails in a corn field or greater and lesser scaup on big water.
But now and then, birds throw you a curve and appear in odd situations or with seemingly strange cousins. Here are some examples I’ve experienced through the years.
Although they typically favor extremely shallow water, green-winged teal sometimes frequent large lakes or rivers during migration. In fact, I’ve shot several fluke greenwings while open-water hunting for divers more than a half-mile from shore.
I can’t explain this. Obviously, those were migrating birds that probably wouldn’t have spent much time bobbing up and down in the surf with funny-looking diving ducks. And probably just as obviously, those teal were likely susceptible to layout-hunting because of their propensity to fly low, which obscured the low-lying layout boat from view.
Perhaps they were just flukes — albeit welcome flukes.
Many puddle ducks share feeding grounds, and it’s not uncommon to find hot holes with mallards, wigeon, gadwalls, pintails and a few teal around the edges. Still, we never really think about shovelers having the same culinary preferences as other dabblers. It happens all the time.
A few weeks ago in South Dakota, my dad and I waited at a large slough that was attracting hordes of wigeon, gaddies and other birds. Right after shooting hours, a gadwall floated over the decoys, its white belly plainly visible. Two other birds followed behind. I rose and took the gray duck, and the trailing pair of ducks flared overhead. It was an easy shot, yet I knew my mistake the moment I touched the trigger: spoonie.
Nifty double? Sure, but it just hammered home that old lesson: Always identify before you shoot.
Hunters always associate fish-guzzling mergansers with big water, and for good reason. But we forget that they nest in trees. In fact, hooded mergansers often favor small tree-lined waters for nesting and brood rearing. That explains why duck hunting chat boards often feature pictures of two woodies and a hoodie, with the title, “Can you identify this duck?”
Yes, I can — and you can, too. Hoodeds might be similar in size to wood ducks, but they look nothing like them and fly in opposite fashion, skittering across the water to get airborne instead of flushing high and proud like a woodie. Always keep an eye out for fish-eating surprises when jump-shooting small creeks and ponds.
OK, redheads and canvasbacks often intermingle, so this isn’t that unusual. But sometimes, it’s amazing how much they do so. I can’t count how many times I’ve glassed flocks and declared, “Cans,” only to note a stockier, darker bird in the line — a redhead. One sunny morning years ago, a huge flock of cans descended on my shoreline blind, and I doubled. Somehow, though, the dog brought back a colorful bull along with a gorgeous drake redhead.
Some folks believe this phenomenon stems from the brood parasitism habits of redheads. That is, they often lay eggs in the nests of other ducks, including those of other species. Trail-camera footage from nesting grounds has shown redhead chicks being raised in canvasback broods.
The oddest mixed flock I’ve seen? Two cans, three redheads, two common mergansers and a red-breasted merganser, traveling together on a savagely windy November day. They landed 60 yards from me, confirming my identification.
You won’t see such oddities every day, of course, so experiencing something similar is pretty cool. Actually, it’s just further proof that every day in the duck marsh features its own unique surprises.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.