Freshwater Ducks of the Lowland Pacific Northwest


Click a photo or scroll to see species accounts.

Mallard American Wigeon Northern Shoveler Northern Pintail Green-winged Teal
Bufflehead Common Goldeneye Scaup Lesser and Greater Common Merganser Hooded Merganser



Mallard   Anas platyrhynchos

How to Identify it:
Green head, brown chest, white line between head and chest, black curled tail.

This is the most common resident duck and it lives in our area all year around. Pairs begin looking for nesting sites in February, nests are typically with eggs by mid March and yellow ducklings appear in late April and through May. Nests are on the ground and near water and even the small overgrown roadside ditches may host a pair.  During the winter months thousands of migrants will congregate in local lakes. The Mallard is mostly a plant eater and typical of dabbling duck it feeds by submersing its head in shallow water  to grab plants and some insects.

American Wigeon  Anas americana

How to identify it:
White stripe on the top of the head, black and white bottom, green eye mask.

This is a duck found in large groups in the winter months. They have a unique  call and often come out of the water to graze on lawns and fields. The American wigeon arrives in November and leaves in April. A few breed in Eastern WA.

Northern Shoveler   Anas clypeata

How to Identify it:
The large bill is distinctive, the head is green and the sides are a bright reddish brown, with a black and white rump and white chest.

This  is another wintering duck, preferring shallow lakes and wetlands. It uses its large bill to sieve through lake bottom muck to find small insects. although it also eats aquatic vegetation.  It arrives with the winter ducks in late October and usually they are gone by mid-April although a few may hang around into May.

Northern Pintail   Anas acuta

How to Identify it:  Chocolate brown head on a long white neck, long black tail feathers.

This is a winter duck, and most often found in estuaries, sometimes in large numbers.  It feeds on seeds and vegetation and sometimes forages in flooded fields or agricultural land adjacent to wetlands.  They arrive in October and most are gone by the end of March.

Green-winged Teal   Anas crecca

How to Identify it: Red head with green mask, gray sides with white slash on side of bottom behind head.

This is one of the earliest arriving winter migrants, sometimes showing up as early as August in tidal wetlands. It feeds on the seeds of water plants and so large numbers congregate in areas with appropriate plants often moving once the food resources are depleted.  This attractive little duck sometimes can be found as late as May.

Bufflehead   Bucephala albeola

How to Identify it:  A small  duck, the black and white body and white mark on the head is distinctive.

This small but easy to notice duck begins to arrive in September, preferring lakes and ponds with lots of insects. It is a diving duck and will disappear under the water then pop up considerable distance away.  It is found in both fresh and salt water situations and can be found as late as May.  In February pair bonding behavior begins, and by late March and April groups of males and females display lively antics including head bobbing , splashing and diving. Females have a brown head with a small white slash on the cheek.


Common Goldeneye   Bucephala clangula

How to Identify it: black back, white bodied duck with round spot just behind bill

This is a winter migrant found on lakes and  rivers, also in estuaries and nearshore marine waters. It is a diving duck, feeding on insects along the bottom in fresh water, also crustaceans and mollusks in salt water.  It arrives in October and most are gone by mid April.  There a few which stick around until May and are sometimes seen in mountain lakes.

Scaup, Lesser and Greater   Aythya affinis, Aythya marila

How to Identify it: Dark head and chest, light grayish body, dark rear end.

There are two species of scaup and they are distinguished by the subtle shape of the head. Lesser scaups are more often found in fresh water and greater scaups are more often found in salt water or brackish, estuaries but this is not definitive. Both are winter migrants and can be found in either fresh or nearshore marine waters and estuaries. They are diving ducks and feed on small aquatic insects.  They arrive in October and are usually gone by mid-April.

Common Merganser   Mergus merganser

How to Identify it:  Large duck, narrow red bill, black head and back, white body

This large white and black duck is a fish eater, and is often seen in winter groups on lakes and rivers, and also nearshore marine waters. It is mostly a winter migrant but there are some resident breeding birds, with groups of ducklings following a female seen along rivers and lakes in June.  It readily dives to capture small fish and sometimes it can be seen struggling to swallow a fish, tossing its head vertical in an attempt to swallow its wriggly lunch.  Female birds have a brown head and sport a shaggy crest of feather on top of their heads.

Hooded Merganser   Lophodytes cucullatus

How to Identify it: Distinctive duck with large white mark on head, black diagonal line on side of white breast.

This handsome duck is unfortunately uncommon, most likely to be found along edges of lakes with wetland vegetation.  It seems to prefer wooded lakeshores and sloughs over open shores although it can also sometimes be found on rivers.  It arrives in October in our waters and there a few which stick around and breed, with females with young in tow seen in June.  It mostly eats aquatic insects but does take small fish and amphibians as well.  In March males engage in breeding displays, erecting their white feather crest and throwing their head back so the bill points to the sky and making a distinctive frog-like  Krrrrrrr call.