Ten Tips for Waterfowl Beginners

Ducks, geese, and swans are extremely common. Take advantage of that to sharpen your birding skills.

Had I not looked down, I would have had a very soggy ride home.

Two weekends ago, I tiptoed along the edge of a pond in New York City’s Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, craning for a better glimpse at a Great Blue Heron. Hoping to maneuver around 20 other birders, I inched closer to the water—almost too close. Just one step further and I would have sat on the subway for two hours with a soaked left foot.

How I went from standing awkwardly at the back of our group of birders, who braved the cold morning air to watch waterbirds, to nearly flinging myself into Jamaica Bay in the space of three hours, I’m not sure. It likely had something to do with my excellent guides from NYC Audubon, Tod Winston and Don Riepe. And though I missed some sightings and nearly froze my nose off, my enjoyment was enough to make me want to chase ducks, swans, and geese—our main targets for the day—again. Read on for the best waterfowl advice I picked up on this trip, plus a few general tips for brand-new birders. 

Learn what qualifies as waterfowl. Even if a bird isn’t swimming circles in a lake or pond, it still might count as waterfowl. There are a few other details that will clue you in to its identity. Its bill, for example, should be flat, wide, and long, like a small gardening spade. All species have at least partially webbed feet as well to paddle around. And their necks and heads should be compact and stocky, unlike those of loons or grebes. 

Go birding with people who know—and love—their ducks. Before heading out to the refuge, Riepe gave us a pep talk and short presentation on which species we might run into: Mallards (“America’s number one duck,” according to Riepe), American Wigeons, Green- and Blue-winged Teals, Hooded Mergansers, and Snow Geese. The birders around me audibly sighed over the beautiful photographs of various waterfowl species he presented. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on me.

Aim to bird on cloudy days. Scanning the sky and landscape for hours, with binoculars in lieu of sunglasses, can result in the mother of all headaches. Additionally, cloud cover reduces the harsh glare on the water, so you can stare at a far-off duck without blinding reflections hurting your eyes—or ID skills. 

Get familiar with your binoculars before hitting the water. Did I weird out other subway riders while when testing my lenses en route? Absolutely. But I also didn’t waste valuable birding time fiddling with dials, and neither should you. Work on scanning slowly and evenly, so you can skim the top of water and stop whenever you see a lump (which is often all you get from a duck). Also, use features along the water’s edge to guide your gaze. Before raising my binoculars, I’d take note of a particular clump of reeds or inlet near the birds I wanted to aim at. 

If you’re part of a pack, don’t be a scope hog. These high-zoom (and often expensive) magnifiers are powerful enough to overcome the poor lighting conditions over water and ideal for sedentary waterfowl. But that doesn’t mean the birds will stick around forever. Be aware of how long the line is behind you and move quickly.

Study those sitting ducks. The phrase exists for a reason: These birds hang around in one spot for a while to sleep, forage, or just throw shade at other members of the flock, giving you plenty of time to pull out your field guide or app (such as Audubon's free bird guide app) to work out IDs or even sketch out the scene. That makes them excellent targets for first-time birders.

Accept that most of the medium-sized ducks are probably Mallards. No matter what people say about the Mallard, it’s a totally cool bird. Adult males, called drakes, have colorful emerald-green heads for most of the year to attract females, called hens, which are drab in comparison but still beautiful in their own right. While chances are good that those birds across the pond are Mallards, you should always take a second to check—you could be surprised.

Pick up some tricks to ID different species. Riepe’s (and now my) favorite: Every American Black Duck has a silver lining, in that both males and females sport a silvery stripe beneath their wings. If a duck kind of looks like an Oreo—black at either end and white in the middle—it's a scaup. Crack open your favorite birding guide for more tips like these; most authors include them in a species description. 

Don’t let iridescent feathers throw you off. Lots of ducks have reflective patches that look different based on lighting. The well-recognized emerald of a Mallard might appear blue, purple, or even black. Male scaup heads also respond to light conditions, with Greater Scaups sometimes appearing green and Lesser Scaups showing purple. Give the bird a second to move around and show another hue if you're not sure about what you see. 

Act like a hunter. If you sit still long enough, the birds will come to you, Riepe says. If you’re not that patient (like me), spend at least a few minutes on each bird around you. Taking time to notice and observe all the birds thriving in water pays off with real entertainment. Ducks are 10 times funnier when their butts are in the air as they dabble for food, and herons are more impressive when they stretch out their incredible necks to strike at fish. 

I would know, as that neck drove me to the water’s edge in the first place.


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