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Ducks are an interesting group of birds. For many birders, they're among the first birds that we learn. They're often reasonably tame. They often allow you to see them well. And males in breeding plumage are distinctively plumaged. All this helps to make them a great group of birds for the beginning birder. But ducks can also present some real identification challenges, particularly in late summer when even the males lose their distinctive plumages.
So where to begin? Behavior and overall shape are great ways to identify ducks. Is the bird diving? Does it rock back and forth in flight (like Bufflehead and Long-tailed Duck) or remain relatively stable (like both goldeneye)? Does it dive or dabble? Our bird seems to be dabbling, but it's hard to tell for sure from a single image. The overall patterned brown to the bird is also much more like a dabbling duck than divers, which tend to have more uniform pattern. Indeed, looking more closely at the pattern of the flanks we see that they are dark centered with poorly-defined warm-buff edges—a pattern that is characteristic of teal (Blue-winged, Green-winged & Cinnamon Teal and Northern Shoveler). Gadwall can be similar but that species has a rather thin dark bill with prominent orange sides.
Looking at the tail now, we can see that our bird only has a slight suggestion of buff on the sides of the tail. Green-winged Teal are most easily separated from other North American teal by the bold buff patch they have just below their tail. Northern Shoveler has whitish outer tail feathers, which would show up prominently here. And while our bird's bill is big, it isn't as big a Northern Shoveler. We could consider Garganey, but that species has a much more boldly patterned face and white edges to the tertials.
This leaves us with the difficult duo of Blue-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal. The most reliable way to separate the two teal is by bill shape. This bird has a relatively large and long bill, reminiscent of a shoveler. Flanks pattern and head pattern are reasonable ways of separating these species, with Blue-winged tending to have a more boldly patterned head, grayish flanks with more sharply-defined edges to the bill. If this were February, this alone would convince us that this was a Cinnamon Teal. But in summer, with juvenile teal these characteristics become far less reliable. Still, the combination of a large bill, overall warm coloration and less patterned plumage are enough to identify this as a Cinnamon Teal. Of course, in the field, one would (hopefully) also have the luxury of direct comparisons with other Cinnamon or Blue-winged Teal, that would make assessing these "relative" field marks less subjective.
This Cinnamon Teal was photographed in early August in Jackson Co., Colorado.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the September Bird Photo Quiz—Cinnamon Teal:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.