Photo Quiz #3 Answer

By Jim Burns

A) Good photo, easy bird


Pop's on the left here, arguably the most beautiful of our North American ducks. Not only have we rendered him in black and white [in the newsletter - ed.], but also we didn't want it to be too easy, so you're looking at eclipse plumage. Most male ducks molt from breeding plumage to a drab, female-like appearance for some weeks in late summer/fall during which they lose all their flight feathers. This is called eclipse.

Even in eclipse, however, there should be no mistaking the white "stirrup" running from Pop's throat up the side of the neck and cheek. Mom is showing the thick, elliptical white eyering diagnostic for the species, and she is showing more of a crest thane her eclipse mate. In breeding plumage the male's crest is long and swept back, reaching the shoulders. Remember the ducktail haircut, or "d-a", of the late '50's?

This pair of Wood Ducks was photographed in the canal along Indian School Road, behind Herberger Park, July, 1992. They probably were part of the population of rehabilitated birds originating at the nearby Phoenix Zoo. Their "countability" is in question, but temporary captivity has done nothing to reduce their beauty.


B) Good photo, difficult bird

Mom's on the left here. Her whitish facial crescents, even in black and white, tell us she belongs to one of four families, but her mate is obviously not a scoter, Harlequin, or goldeneye. We have to be viewing members of the pochard family. Pop isn't showing a tuft, or "pony-tail", so we aren't looking at Tufted Ducks. We're looking at a pair of scaups, but always a tough dilemma, are they Greater or Lesser?

Once again, black and white is a blessing because beginners too often try to distinguish the scaups by head color: purple or green. Once you've watched a swimming Mallard's head change from purple to green as the angle of the light changes, you'll understand why color is a poor diagnostic tool for scaups. We need to look at two structural details - head shape and, if close enough, the size of the"nail" on the bill. This pair's heads are smooth and rounded rather than peaked and crested. The black on Pop's bill is quite extensive and broadens out from the black nail to encompass almost the entire width of the bill's tip.

This Greater Scaup couple was photographed June 1995, at Potter Marsh in Anchorage, Alaska. The black on a Lesser Scaup's bill will usually be no wider than the nail itself. The notion that female Lessers show only one facial crescent whereas Greater females show two is not reliable. The number and size of the female facial crescents are variable and not diagnostic between these two congeners. Unfortunately, we seldom get to see Mom and Pop Greater Scaups together in Arizona when they visit in the winter.

C) Bad photo, easy bird


Well, I got closer than I had ever been with the camera to this wary species. But the focus is not sharp. There was no sunlight and the birds were bobbing up and down in a pounding surf (there's a good clue!). Spray was flying, the tide was coming in, and our whole world was opaques and grays, definitely not conducive to a stunning photo. It was a black and white experience, perfect I guess for a black and white quiz.

Mom is front and left; Pop is right and rear. Even without his stunning patterns and colors the pair makes for an obvious identification. Mom has three white spots on her face (see the discussion for photo B), steep forehead, stubby bill. Pop has two large white crescents in front of his eyes. Even in strong sunlight this pair can appear very dark or even black at a distance, so the white patches and their placement, and the patterns of dark and light are often-need diagnostic tools for this species.

These are Harlequin Ducks, perhaps the quintessential sea ducks, always at home in the roughest ocean surf in the winter. This pair was photographed in Point Arena, California, in January 1997. When you see them fly you'll know why they're referred to as "lead butts", a useful name to remember if you see Harleys flying at a distance so that you pick up only the flight jizz but no color. The first photo-confirmed Harlequin for Arizona was captured on film last winter at Arthur Pack Park in Tucson, a site oddly removed from their preferred rolling surf.