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North Dakota Outdoors: Good time to brush up waterfowl identification

The recent spell of dreary weather reduced options for enjoying spring activities. Even the most passionate anglers stutter-step out the door when weather forecasters predict rain, wind and cool temperatures.

The recent spell of dreary weather reduced options for enjoying spring activities. Even the most passionate anglers stutter-step out the door when weather forecasters predict rain, wind and cool temperatures.

But if you're like me, idle time gets old after 20 minutes of the Outdoors Channel. Instead of waiting for the mercury to inch higher, grab your family and head outdoors.

Watchable wildlife

Most hunters don't think of themselves in terms of bird watchers, but they are part of an expanding group who appreciate watchable wildlife.

Wildlife watching is gaining popularity among hunters, and those who may not hunt or who have lost interest in hunting. Millions participate without realizing it.


If you've ever marveled at a wood duck along a ditch or paused to ponder what kind of warbler is in your back yard feeder, you are defined as a watchable wildlife enthusiast.

Waterfowl ID important

Since bag limits are set by species, proper duck identification is important to all hunters, from novice to veterans.

For example, even seasoned hunters have difficulty distinguishing between redheads and canvasbacks. Hunters can find themselves in a bind if they wait until a bird is in the hand before determining what species it is.

Spring is a great time brush up on proper identification of all bird species, especially ducks because they are visible and colored in breeding plumage.

An afternoon or evening family outing, exploring the countryside, looking for ducks and other birds is an entertaining and educational experience, whether you hunt or not.

A few items should accompany you. A general bird book is a good reference; a specific waterfowl identification book is also handy. After one trip to the marsh, you'll be amazed at the wide array of birds found near North Dakota waters.

Waterfowl ID tips


While it may seem a daunting task, learning to recognize duck species is relatively simple.

Ducks are categorized in two groups -- diver ducks and puddle ducks.

Diver ducks that include canvasbacks, redheads and scaup sort of perform a combination run/fly across the water, like airplanes, while ascending into flight.

Puddle ducks are more like helicopters. They "jump" into the air without needing a runway of water to get airborne. Another difference is that puddle ducks tip when they feed, exposing only their tail above water. Diver ducks completely submerge themselves while feeding.

Identification often involves a process of elimination. If the duck you are attempting to identify is diving completely under water to feed, you can determine it is not a gadwall or mallard, which are puddle ducks.

Where to go?

Honing waterfowl ID skills doesn't require driving hundreds of miles. An afternoon trip to Alice or southern Richland County are a couple of nearby destinations for those willing to spend a little time on the back roads.

Each provides a nice mixture of wetlands, from permanent lakes to temporary potholes. The Red River and its tributaries will also generate a few different species.


Truth is, whether it's sheet water covering several acres, or even a ditch, anywhere you find water is an opportunity to test your knowledge.

Just like becoming proficient at tying flies or casting with a bait-casting reel, perfecting waterfowl identification takes time and the only way to improve is to practice. Over the next couple of weeks practice conditions are at their best.

Leier, an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in West Fargo, can be reached at (701) 277-0719 or at dleier@state.nd.us

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