Speaking of Nature: The blue-winged teal
Bill Danielson photo
A male blue-winged teal is instantly identifiable because of the distinctive white crescent on his face. You can even see a hint of blue on his wing.
Bill Danielson photo
A female blue-winged teal is virtually anonymous in this pose, there is not a trace of blue to be seen.
Bill Danielson photo
Jackpot! A pair of blue-winged teal expose the blue on their wings while preening. The female (right) stretches to show the full extent of color.
The scene was a familiar one to me: a rather substantial body of water not far from my house with the characteristics of a pond —– shallow water with lots of cattails — but the size of a lake. I pass by this lake on my way to and from work and I am regularly tantalized by what I see. There are shapes floating on the surface that make me want to pull over and call in sick. These are the shapes of ducks, but anyone who likes birds knows that not all ducks are created equal.
I am generally stuck looking at silhouettes, particularly in the morning. The biggest of them are easily identified as Canada geese; beautiful birds, but so common in our area that they are far from tantalizing. As the shapes get smaller, they often change color and even in the gloom of an early morning in early spring, you can make out the distinct white of a male common merganser; definitely tempting, but still not tantalizing.
No, it’s the smallest of the shapes that really get one’s curiosity up. Little ducks that are too small to be mallards are always interesting and, as always, they seem to present themselves when it’s either too dark, too cold, or too wet to actually stop and look at them. And then, of course, there’s that annoying little fact that you can pass close to them at 50 mph but if you stop, they flee.
So that’s when you get extreme. You slowly acquire camouflage clothing, camouflage boots, camouflage netting and even camouflage gloves in an attempt to hide your true identity. Actually, your ultimate goal is to hide your presence altogether, but your camera will always give you away. That’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but it is an annoying reality of photography.
Year after year, you try the same basic thing and you slowly learn what works by trial and error. You need an inflatable pad to sit on to keep the comfort level within reason and (and this is key) to prevent the moisture of sodden spring soil from completely soaking your backside. And heck, it might as well be camouflage, too.
You learn to arrive very early in the morning so you can set up before most of the ducks really know what’s going on. You learn to sit very still for long periods of time and you learn to keep your eyes open without surrendering to boredom and glazing over. Finally, you learn about failure.
You can see the ducks, but for some reason they don’t come toward your position. Do they see you? Well, the mallards that swam by an hour ago didn’t seem to notice, or if they did, they didn’t care. But which was it? They must certainly notice that there is something different about the patch of shoreline that is me. The color is a little off, there’s a mound where there wasn’t a mound before, but it’s still just a mound, right? Do they recognize it’s me? Do I have to buy something else with camouflage on it?
No, I think the ducks simply aren’t cooperating today. There are mallards and even a couple male pintails that are clearly visible, but they are far too distant to take photos of. So close, yet so very, very far. Such is the frustration of photography. I did everything right and it just didn’t work out.
But all is not lost. I have photos of some of the smaller ducks at home. I was hoping to get some season-and-location-appropriate photos of the ducks, but I’ll just have to settle for the gorgeous closeups that I managed to secure elsewhere. So these are the circumstances I must deal with this week as I present to you Anas discors — the blue-winged teal.
As with almost every duck, the male is easy to identify. He has a distinctive crescent moon of white on his dark head that is clearly visible at great distances. The female, on the other hand, is an expert in stealth. She has the same mottled brown feathers that many female ducks wear. If you are a true expert, you might be able to identify her species by size and shape alone, but if you’re like me, you can’t be sure of anything other than the fact that she isn’t male. That’s it. Only by seeing the male in her company can you tell what species she actually is.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t clues. These ducks are called blue-winged teal for a very good reason. They have a broad patch of powder-blue feathers on the leading edge of their wings, but these are generally seen in flight. When the ducks are resting, they can completely hide these feathers. At best, you can catch a glimpse of a small patch of blue every now and then.
But if you catch the birds preening their feathers, you might get lucky. Wings are tilted at odd angles as each and every feather gets a little attention, but what you really hope for is one of those calm, contented stretches. When wings are fully extended (often with a leg), you finally see the blue. It’s funny that most of my bird books show blue-winged teal without the blue actually showing. But my “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America” shows an illustration of a female standing on one leg and stretching in exactly the manner that I have described to you.
Unlike the American wigeon, which I introduced to you last week, the blue-winged teal is a true resident of our area during the breeding season. From Pennsylvania west to northern California and north into much of Canada, the blue-winged teal is described as “common.” I have a wonderful checklist of the birds of Massachusetts that graphically indicates a bird’s status throughout the year and it, too, indicates that the blue-winged teal is “common” at this time of year, particularly during April and May.
The problem is that common is a relative term. Robins are common, blue jays are common and mourning doves are common, but they are also commonly seen. Blue-winged teal, on the other hand, may be described as common, but I just never seem to spot them with any regularity. In fact, it is so uncommon for me to see them that I really got excited when I came across a flock of these gorgeous ducks when I visited Florida last year.
You will instantly notice that the vegetation in my photographs is green, rather than brown. The astute observer will also notice that the vegetation is distinctly unfamiliar. That’s because I was visiting a beautiful wetland in Boynton Beach, Fla. This is the same place where I saw the wood storks and limpkins that I have featured in past articles and among the avian menagerie, I also found a flock of blue-winged teals.
It’s the thing that makes Florida so wonderful and so frustrating at the same time. Here I’d be lucky to get within a hundred yards of a teal before it flew off. In Florida, if you go to just the right place, you can get within 10 yards. But if you went to Florida right now (as some of you may be planning), you wouldn’t see any blue-winged teal because they’re all up here.
This is a big weekend for many people. Traveling to visit family is probably on many personal agendas, so don’t forget to pack a field guide and some binoculars. Head out to see what you can see and be prepared to see whatever it is from a great distance, but have fun while you do it.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com