Finding Uncommon Birds – Know Your Local Birds

When I started writing about finding uncommon birds in your local area, I wanted to concentrate on things other than identification.  But one of the things I should have included on the initial list was knowing your local species.  I have read several articles on finding rare species and they don’t agree on exactly how to find rare species, but one of the things they all list is really knowing your local birds.  It is a lot easier to spot an uncommon species when it’s appearance, actions, or sounds are different from the local birds.  And that fact was brought to my attention again by my recent pictures of an American Black Duck.

To correctly identify American Black Ducks you should know your local female Mallards.  Without knowing the Mallards it is tougher to spot an American Black Duck.  So how many of us have spent the time to read up on the common Mallard in our field guides?  Then go out in the field and spend a good length of time watching your local Mallards? Comparing the information from the field guide with what we see?

Well I have done that several times and I’m still not sure when I see a light-colored American Black Duck or a Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid.  I think the main problem is that we see so few American Black Ducks in the Midwest away from the Great Lakes that it is difficult to remember all their key points.

The next photo shows a bird I posted as an American Black Duck back on 1/19/2014.

American Black Duck.  One of two that were present Sunday, 1/19/14. Lowes/Walmart Pond.
American Black Duck. One of two that were present Sunday, 1/19/14.
Lowes/Walmart Pond.

As seen in the comments section on that post Amy Kearns says she is seeing a Mallard.  Besides the darker color of the American Black Duck I was also using the bill color as an ID mark.   The bird pictured has a bill that matches the description for the female in Sibley’s “…dark overall, with dark olive bill”.  So I went with American Black Duck.  In the field the bird looked darker. And there was another birder there and he agreed it looked good for American Black Duck.  But she is right in that the bird is too light to be an American Black Duck.

Now here is another bird at the same pond on 2/2/14.  Notice how much darker it is and the yellow bill ?

American Black Duck with friends. Walmart/Lowes 02/02/14
American Black Duck with friends.
Walmart/Lowes 02/02/14

Or these birds from Illinois I saw on 2/27/11?  See the lighter colored female Mallard behind the male?  Much lighter.

American Black Ducks - Seneca Boat Docks 2/27/11
Photo of American Black Ducks on a really foggy/misty day.  Seneca Boat Docks

Back to the title of this post.  Now I should have worked my way through the field marks of the female Mallard, which I know, but didn’t work all the way through.  And I should have asked myself why was she staying close to a male Mallard? And if I would have kept asking myself why this wasn’t a female Mallard, the default, instead of asking myself why this was an American Black Duck, I probably wouldn’t have made the same decision.

Final thoughts.  The bird did not spread her wings so I did not get a good look at the speculum, which would have made the call easier.  And the bill still looks more olive-yellow to me than the orange of a Mallard.  So maybe she has a trace of American Black Duck?  Either way I took American Black Duck  off my eBird list for the day.

Thanks Amy for pointing this out and getting me thinking about it.

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