By Nick Johnson
It is common knowledge among waterfowl hunters who hunt early season that the drakes of many species of ducks appear dull and somewhat ugly in color. That beautiful drake Mallard or Greenwing teal whose plumage is striking come winter and spring often looks so drab that he resembles the hen of his respective species during late summer and early fall. What this means for those of us who duck hunt early is often a tough game of identification for species which pose special harvest regulations. Mis-identifying a hen Mallard for an eclipse or immature drake, or a Gadwall, or a Pintail, or a Shoveler when the hen Mallard bag limit is filled might just wind up as an expensive confrontation with the local CO.
Not all duck species pose special bag regulations in Iowa, but in fact, about half of the common Iowa species do. Mallards, Black ducks, Pintails, Wood ducks, Redheads, Canvasbacks and Scaup all have special regulations where harvests are limited per each hunter’s daily bag limit. While this doesn’t seem like a problem when the limit is six ducks a day per licensed hunter, many of the hens and eclipse drakes of these species really look similar, especially in flight or in improper lighting. It is important for those of us who hunt waterfowl to respect these special limits and to be responsible by identifying an incoming bird to the best of our ability before the trigger is pulled.
Most species of ducks shed their body feathers twice a year and wing feathers once a year. Drakes of these species generally lose their colorful breeding plumage shortly after mating and enter a stage called eclipse. The eclipse stage can last for a few weeks to as much as many months. Species such as Blue wing teal, Shovelers and Ruddy ducks generally retain their eclipse plumage well into the winter months.
Puddle ducks such as Mallards, Gadwall, Pintails and though rare in Iowa, the Black duck, all look very similar in color during the eclipse plumage stage or as immature birds. Diving duck species such as Ring necks and Scaup look incredibly similar, even in breeding plumage. The following images show some key features to help identify these species.
Although the mallard is easily the most recognizable duck in the U.S., it can still be difficult for hunters to distinguish an eclipse drake or immature drake from a hen, especially in flight. Since Iowa hunters are only allowed two hens in their four mallard daily bag limit, identifying the sexes accurately can be extremely important during early season. Mallards are the only duck species in Iowa that hold a special limit on the hen.
The key feature to recognize is the color of the bill. Drakes will almost always have a yellowish-olive bill whereas hens most often have a brownish-orange bill with some black markings on top. Most of the time you will encounter drakes with at least some of their color but it’s usually the immature drakes that fool hunters.
Wood ducks are another well known species due to the male’s beautiful plumage in breeding colors. Wood duck males also lose a lot of their luster during the summer but the drakes are still fairly recognizable during early season. They retain a faint white chinstrap and orange-red coloration on the bill which sets them apart from the hen.
Black ducks are a fairly rare visitor to the state of Iowa but they most definitely do occur and a few hunters are lucky enough to harvest one or more each season. Because the limit on Black ducks is one per day per hunter, it becomes quite important to know the difference between a Black duck and a hen mallard, or even an eclipse drake mallard.
Black ducks naturally have a rather dark body in comparison to a hen Mallard. When coming straight in, the Black duck will also have a dark tail compared to the lighter colored tail of a Mallard. Drake Black ducks have a yellowish colored bill and the hen has more of an olive drab colored bill.
Pintails are typically a little easier to identify from other hen puddle ducks but they can still be tricky. Key features on both hens and drakes are slender pointed wings, long necks and the telltale pointed tail that is still somewhat noticeable even on hens and eclipse drakes. Both sexes have gray feet and dark colored bills.
A mid-sized puddle duck, Wigeons are most notably characterized in the early season by the white patches on their wings. Drakes will have a much larger white patch just above the speculum. Hen wigeons also have a rather dark head and mottled rusty brown chest. The males will also display a blue and black bill throughout the seasons.
Known as the gray duck, Gadwall are a fairly common addition to many hunter’s bag limit throughout the year in Iowa. They are smaller than a Mallard hen but closely resemble her in color and body shape. What sets Gadwall apart is the white patch on the speculum of their wings. Drake Gadwall also have rusty colored feathers just above the speculum. Hens have yellowish colored legs whereas drakes normally have more orange in their leg color.
Shovelers are a fairly easy duck to identify due to their exceptionally large beak yet some people still mistake them for a hen Mallard. Both hen and drake Shovelers during the early season have colors similar to that of the hen Mallard. What sets them apart other than the spoon-like bill is the blue and green patches of color on the speculum area of the wing. They also have pointy narrow wings much like that of a Pintail.
Blue Wing Teal
Blue wing teal are a speedy little duck that hunters frequently harvest in the early season. They are easy to identify by the large blue patch above the speculum of the wing. Drakes can be distinguished from hens by having a green speculum on their wings. They are sometimes mistaken for Shovelers and Green wing teal but rarely mistaken for anything else.
Green Wing Teal
Green wings are the smallest puddle duck in North America. They are sometimes mistaken for Blue wings but can be characterized by the lack of a blue patch above the wing speculum and the presence of a green speculum on both hens and drakes. Drakes in eclipse plumage can be distinguished from the hens by having a more grayish color to their wings.
The king of ducks is hard to mistake and most Iowa hunters do not get the opportunity to shoot one during a given season. Those who hunt the Mississippi River and larger reservoirs and lakes however commonly see these ducks when they migrate through. The hens and immature drakes can sometimes resemble other drab colored ducks in flight however so it becomes important to identify them. They are a large duck with a longer neck and a long sloping bill. With a bag limit of one or sometimes zero per day per hunter, one should most definitely be aware of identifying this species.
The Redhead is another duck that is not commonly harvested in Iowa but a few hunters do encounter them occasionally. The hen and immature drakes can sometimes resemble hen Ringneck ducks and hen Scaup. Since the daily bag limit per hunter is two, one should be cautions when encountering divers during the early season. Hen Redheads have a paler face than a hen Ringneck and a much less pronounced white ring on their bills. Still, immature hens can resemble a hen Ringneck very closely. The tops of the wings on hen Redheads are a dull gray color where hen Ringnecks tend to have a darker brown hue to the tops of their wings.
A fabled trophy duck in Iowa, there is often no mistaking the Goldeneye when encountered on the water. The telltale whistling sound these birds make in flight gives them the nickname “whistlers”, and many hunters hear them before actually seeing them. They are a robust duck and bear a bill similar in appearance to sea ducks. Goldeneyes are often one of the last ducks to migrate south in the fall so it is exceedingly rare for hunters to take one during the early season. Both hens and drakes have a white patch on the wings. Hens have a brownish colored head and slate gray body and drakes have the iconic white cheek spot that makes them easily identifiable. In eclipse plumage the drakes closely resemble the hens in coloration.
Once an extremely abundant and sought after species, the Lesser and Greater Scaup numbers have now been on the decline for the last two decades and their numbers reflect a reserved daily bag limit of two per hunter. Scaup most closely resemble the Ringneck duck in appearance yet lack the telltale white ring on the bill and the faint chestnut ring on the neck. Rarely encountered in Iowa during the early season, Scaup become most abundant when inclement weather pushes them down from the north. Hunters rarely harvest Greater Scaup in Iowa but they do pass through in smaller numbers each year.
To tell the difference between the Lesser and Greater Scaup, one needs to look at the wings and the bill. Greater Scaup have a brighter white stripe that extends the full length of the wing. They also have a larger nail on the end of their bill, not to mention body size is generally a little bigger. Mature drake Greater Scaup also tend to have a greenish metallic sheen to their heads whereas Lesser Scaup drakes have a purplish-blue metallic sheen on their heads.
Ringneck ducks are a fairly common diver species in Iowa compared to the other divers. They also tend to show up earlier in the season than species such as Scaup, Canvasbacks and Redheads. They frequent smaller shallow bodies of water and are encountered by puddle duck hunter much more often than Scaup. Since Ringnecks do not hold a special bag limit, hunters are allowed to take six of them per day in their daily bag limit. The key feature on these ducks is the bright white ring around the end of their bill which gives them their common nickname “ringbill”. They are fast fliers and closely resemble bluebills at a distance so keep a sharp eye on the bill if any commit to your spread.
Buffleheads are hard to mistake as their small size and coloration make them easy to distinguish from other species. The smallest of the North American divers, buffleheads often migrate when Wigeon, Scaup and Canvasbacks begin to show up in Iowa. The hens are sometimes mistaken for teal or Ruddy ducks in flight but one telltale characteristic is the white patch on the rear of their cheek. They have stubbier wings than teal and often fly lower on the water. Drakes are unmistakable with their bright white and black plumage. Even eclipse drakes still retain some of these colors.
Not often encountered in flight, Ruddy ducks are more at home in the water than they are in the air. They are a common mid-season duck on many bigger lakes in Iowa yet hunters rarely have the opportunity to take one. They are frequently observed in small rafts bobbing among the waved with their telltale stiff tales cocked upward. A small duck, slightly larger than a bufflehead, Ruddys can be identified by their brown color, longer tails and white cheek spots below their eyes in flight. Their flight appears rapid and somewhat laborious.