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A speedy flock of largish birds flies directly overhead and you have mere moments to snag data useful in an attempt to ID the birds. What to concentrate on? As most highly-skilled birders would probably tell you, shape is an incredibly useful datum and usually the most readily assessed, given vagaries of lighting. By the rules of this quiz, we know something that we would not know were we actually in the field with these birds: There is only one species present. Thus, every individual may provide clues to the one identity we will propose.
The bills are short and wide, necks and tails longish, and wings of unremarkable length, but with an odd rounded-yet-pointed aspect. The top right bird is probably in the best posture to assess wing shape, and we might note that both leading and trailing edges curve gradually toward each other to a pointed tip. The tails are not only relatively long, many of them appear quite square-cut. Additionally, the shape of the flock is important, with birds spaced out rather widely and with little in the way of a distinct ‘V’ or ball, as one might expect with many ducks and larger shorebirds. For an observer experienced with this species, these clues might be all s/he needs to make a confident identification, and we haven’t even gotten to field marks.
Many of the various shape cues might take us into the waterfowl, though the group as a whole is not known for long tails. However, the bill shape rules most other viable options out, so we’ll see where we wind up starting in waterfowl. Besides, they’re at the very beginning of the newer field guides. Though I’ve described the necks as longish, they’re nowhere near long enough to be part of most species of geese. Besides, the tails are much too long to be goose tails. And swans and whistling-ducks, those are right out! Among ducks, a few species are known for their relatively long tails in a group that, in general, has found little use for such. Diving ducks, in general, sport short tails even for ducks, though Harlequin Duck, the two stifftails (Oxyura), and five of the six cavity-nesting species (Bucephala, Lophodytes, and Mergus) have relatively long tails.
So, using data from Pyle (2008; Tables 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11) and not including long-tailed males of Northern Pintail and Long-tailed Duck, the cluster of species at the long-tailed end (in rank order of tail length relative to wing chord, which is an index of overall size) are Masked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Harlequin Duck, Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, and American Wigeon. The somewhat long-tailed species are Northern Pintail, Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Merganser, and Green-winged Teal. The rest, I call (somewhat arbitrarily) species with average or short tails. For ducks.
Considering only the species noted above as either long-tailed or somewhat long-tailed, we can rule out all the wedge-tailed or pointed-tailed species (the two wigeons and Northern Pintail), as even the ducks in the quiz picture that don’t have square-cut tails, have tails much too square for any of those species. The two mergansers are eliminated on their very thin and long(ish) bills and the two stifftails by their very wide bills. All but one of the remaining species can be eliminated by flock structure, as they all fly in tighter/denser flocks when found in monospecific flocks. Once we get to a single species that seems to meet all of the shape criteria, we might note that the birds’ plumage is unique: bright white and dark head pattern, dark/reddish neck and chest, white belly, and black vent and tail. I took this picture of nine Wood Ducks flying over the Seawatch at Avalon, Cape May Co., NJ, on 7 October 2008.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the July Bird Photo Quiz—Wood Duck:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.