NATURE NOTE – Number 61                                                                           January 28, 2023


As I have mentioned before, winter is perceived by many as sort of dull time for observing nature.   It is to some extent, but it also presents some great opportunities to see some animals that you are not likely to see during the rest of the year.  One of these is a group I will call…

Our Current Topic:  Winter ducks

First, let’s acknowledge that some of the birds discussed below are not really ducks, but duck-like birds.  If they are floating on, or flying over ponds, lakes, or rivers, and they are kind of bulky with their head sticking up I’m going to include them here.  Also keep in mind that since ducks (duck-like) can fly and most migrate, it is difficult to list all of those species you could see in our council area.  Strangers turn up frequently.  It is also likely that the species to the east of the Blue Ridge will likely be more diverse than west of the Blue Ridge, since it’s closer to the coast. The ones listed here are some of the more common ones you might see during the winter in our area.  It is a starting point.  Many of these will NOT be here in the summer as they fly north to their summer ranges.  Keep some other things in mind as well: 

  • Review your field guide before you go searching for these birds. Many of them have details that need to be seen for identification, and sometimes winter does not give you best light for seeing them.
  • You will need a field guide (or app if you are comfortable with that) with you to be able to know what markings to look for while the bird is in sight (I have found that waiting until you get home to look up a bird is not always a reliable way of identification – “I should’ve looked at the color on the wings!”).
  • Often the females don’t look like the males.
  • Sometimes it is difficult to see details of ducks on the water without binoculars.
  • Most wild ducks will tolerate humans only to a limited extent before the move on by wing or paddling off.
  • Ducks will frequently be in mixed-species flocks on the water, so don’t look at one and assume they are all the same species.
  • Weather can determine how successful you will be on any given day.
  • Some ducks are “divers”, meaning they dive beneath the surface to feed, while others are “dabbling ducks” that just tip over in the water to feed. This may help in identification.
  • Most ducks feed on vegetation and insects. Only the mergansers will eat fish.

Here are a dozen duck-like birds you may see, but it is certainly not all inclusive (description is of the male):

  • American Coot: It’s the small black duck with a very white bill.  It is not really a duck.
  • Pied-billed Grebe: Again, not really a duck, but quite small, duck-like with a short, but thick bill. Dives and stays under water for a time.
  • Hooded Merganser: larger, black and white with a long bill (a fish eater) and large white patch behind the eye on what appears to be an extra-large head.
  • Common merganser: larger bird, dark green head, white sides and breast. Long orange bill.
  • Canada goose: common, black neck and head with white patch on throat. Note:  It is NOT a CANADIAN goose, but a CANADA  
  • Mallard: the very common year-round duck with the green head and white ring around the neck.
  • Shoveler: looks like a Mallard on first glance, but look at the large wide bill and white breast.
  • Ruddy Duck: small, with large white patches on the face and a large, stiff, almost vertical tail.
  • Bufflehead: a rather common small duck with a white body and an almost solid white head.
  • Ring-necked duck: dark head and breast with lot of white on body, a dark head, and an obvious ring around bill; has be seen on Lake Ottari.
  • American Widgeon: medium sized, white head cap with green stripe behind eye; brownish breast. Common in mixed flocks.
  • Green-winged Teal: small, grayish with reddish head and green flash to rear of eye.


The council area has numerous rivers, lakes and ponds that will attract these birds.  Some areas that quickly come to mind are Carvins Cove near Roanoke, Claytor Lake, Smith Mountain Lake, state parks, the Roanoke, James, Dan, New, and other rivers, and the scout reservation lakes.  Smaller farm ponds or other water will also attract these birds.  Many ducks will spend most or part of the winter at one location, so some advanced scouting of potential sites on a frequent basis will help you narrow down where you want to concentrate your duck-watching.  You might plan an outing with duck-watching as the goal, or you may find ducks as part of another winter outing where the opportunity just presents itself.  Regardless, watching ducks is an excellent way to gain an interest in birding in general and gain an appreciation for one of the fantastic parts of nature.  Even if you can’t identify all that you see, just the challenge of seeing those different ducks might be enough to encourage a scout to engage in something new and interesting.  Good luck.  Study your field guide.  Learn one of the above species each night.  Let me know if you find something of interest in your duck-watching. 

Nature stays all winter.  Go find it.  Contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Bob Garst