Quick Tips for Identifying Ducks in Flight

By author of The Duck Blog

Use these tricks to know your targets long before the shot

Mallards are fairly easy to identify in flight. Other ducks might confuse you, especially during low light or cloudy days. Photo © Rck_953/ShutterstockIdentifying ducks in flight can be one of the biggest challenges for waterfowlers — especially neophytes.

After a couple of seasons afield or a few sessions with a duck-identification guide, most hunters can identify ducks within 60 or so yards in good light. However, identifying distant birds or ducks in poor light, like during early morning, can be much tougher.

Here are some tips I’ve picked up.

Puddle Ducks

Mallards: With their large bodies and long wingbeats, nothing flies like a mallard. Further, the chestnut breasts and brilliant green heads of the drakes make it easy to distinguish them from susies. In low light, key on the dark breast to identify drakes. However, be careful: Some hens feature darker breasts, so it’s not a 100 percent guarantee that you’re shooting at a drake. When in doubt, hold fire.

Black ducks: It can be darn tough to discern these from hen mallards. During bright days, you can pick out the black’s much darker body color. Also, look for silver on the underside of the wings. If you see silver coloration on a bird directly overhead, it’s likely a black.

Pintails: You can identify distant pintails by their angled, gull-like wings and, of course, wedge-shaped tail. When birds are closer, you’ll often pick out the white on drakes. Hens can be more difficult to discern, but their wings, slender profile and pointed tail usually give them away.

American wigeon: If you see lots of white on the wing, it’s a drake wigeon. Gadwalls have white speculums, which are also visible in flight. However, drake wigeon show far more white. Also, you’ll notice their white oval bellies in flight. Wigeon fly in loosely organized groups, and they seem to dip and turn more than mallards.

Gadwall: Look for white speculums and light oval bellies. You can confuse gray ducks with wigeon at a distance, but gadwalls have a more “mallard-esque” silhouette than the stocky wigeon.

Shovelers: Believe it or not, spoonbills can fool you. I’ve seen folks confuse them with teal or even diving ducks. However, you can easily identify shovelers by silhouette if you look at their head and neck. If a bird appears to have a kink in its neck — neck raised, and its long head pointed slightly downward — it’s a shoveler. You can easily notice the white breast of drake spoonies when they fly close.

Wood ducks: If you see the silhouette of a medium-sized bird twisting and turning through the marsh, look for a long, rounded tail. It’s a woodie. For overhead birds, key on the dark breast and white underbelly.

Teal: Obviously, because of their diminutive size, it’s tough to confuse bluewings or greenwings with other ducks. You can easily distinguish them from each other. Greenwings have a light belly and appear blockier yet more agile in flight. Bluewings are drab, and the blue on their wings is often visible.

Divers

Canvasbacks: You can pick out cans by their long necks and wedge-shaped heads. Redheads have similar coloration but appear much blockier and stockier in flight. Further, nothing shines as white as a bull can in breeding plumage.

Scaup: Drakes feature the quintessential black-and-white coloration. You can confuse hen scaup or immature birds with hen redheads or ringbills, but the white marking near the bill of a scaup gives it away. Can you distinguish greater scaup from lessers in flight? It’s tough, and they must be close. However, greaters are noticeably larger, and if the white on the wings extends to the primary flight feathers, it’s a greater.

Ringbills: You might confuse these with scaup at a distance. However, the wing markings and sides of scaup are white, but a ringneck has gray on its wings and sides.

Redheads: Drakes are fairly easy to identify. You might confuse hen redheads with hen scaup and hen ringbills, especially if they fly right at you during cloudy days. However, redheads are larger than both and don’t have the white facial markings of a scaup.

Buffleheads: Nothing else looks like a black-and-white drake butterball. However, in low light, you might confuse a hen bufflehead with a ruddy duck. Buffleheads are far more powerful and graceful than ruddies. Ruddy ducks can fly swiftly but almost never twist, turn or dive in flight like buffleheads. Also, ruddies usually appear to be skittering just above the water.

Mergansers: If a bird is really long and stark white, it’s a sawbill. Also, if a decoying flock seems too good to be true, they’re mergansers. Trust me. You might mistake hooded mergansers for buffleheads sometimes, but they typically fly higher than butterballs and twist more in flight.

Sure ID

Sometimes, for whatever reason, you fail to identify ducks as they zip past. It's usually best to hold fire in such cases, as you don't want to make a mistake with a hen mallard, hen pintail or, worse, sawbill. Just do better with the next flock. All it takes is practice and some common-sense identification skills.

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