If you are among stalwart, diehard duck hunters shooting over water early in the season, you will have your work cut out for you with this year's forecast of plentiful waterfowl. To avoid a case of "false identity," here are some helpful reminders.
The members of the diving duck clan vary from predominantly light gray to dark gray with heads that range in color from rusty brown to iridescent greenish/bluish. We're talking here, for example, about the canvasback, redhead, and two species of scaup. They’re pretty good to eat, especially the canvasback that during the days of the market hunters, were known as “King Can,” being the biggest and most sought after bird to sell to the table.
Most diving ducks—think here of buffleheads, goldeneyes and mergansers, are typically big water ducks you'll find on rivers or large areas of open water such as Freezeout Lake, Bowdoin Lake, Flathead Lake, Hebgen and Ennis Reservoirs, among other waters.
If you like to hunt small marshes or secluded wetlands, you are likely to see teal, shoveler, gadwall, wigeon, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, the ever-present mallard, and the exceedingly uncommon pintail. All are good dinner table fare. Most teal and pintails tend to vacate Montana’s wetlands in the early fall. That means less acumen for duck identification is required later in the season.
Mallard ducks represent fully 75 percent or more of Montana’s duck harvest. In mallard hunting the challenge is just to tell male from female, as females sometimes come with a penalty if you shoot too many. The biggest duck in the air most days, mallards are not only common but one of the most recognizable ducks in Montana.
If you see a typically lone duck checking you out from an altitude so high it could be a bug overhead, it is without doubt a pintail. Long-necked and sleek, the pintail takes its time to get even six gun ranges away. Remember to keep track of the regulations and the number of pintails you bag a day. Bag limits can vary significantly year to year depending on the nation-wide pintail population.
To the other extreme, if the duck is alone, part of a pair, or in a small swarm of 5 to ten and has buzzed you a few feet off the water, you’ve just encountered teal. In Montana, teal come in three varieties: the green-winged, blue-winged, or the cinnamon. These speedsters will flip, roll and zoom off into the next county in a way that distinguishes them from all others.
So what of the gadwall, the shoveler, the wigeon, the wood duck, and the remaining miscellany of the duck clan?
The wood duck is a secretive bird, typically hanging out in wooded areas. In most parts of Montana, wooded stream banks, wooded wetlands, and wooded ditch banks are where wood ducks can be found. Wood ducks are mast eaters—in Montana that means Russian olive berries. Where the berries fall into the water or on shores with overhanging Russian olive bushes, you're likely to find the medium-sized wood duck. To hunt woodies, go early in the season as cold weather and subsequent freeze up sends them on their way to Texas.
The northern shoveler is an all too common duck that flies around looking like it’s carrying a grocery list in its bill. Most duck hunters aren't impressed. They say the shoveler requires a host of spices and condiments to be edible. Shovelers filter floating foods from standing water.
Gadwalls are another of the basic brown ducks. While the males turn a stunning mottled grey color in winter, to Montana’s early season hunters they look mostly like a small version of the hen mallard. Watch for a telltale patch of white with black and possibly rust on the upper surface of the back of the wing as they are the only duck with this marking. While they resemble mallards, they’re less wary and approach decoys more readily with or without calling. Some hunters like them, but virtually every one would pass up a shot at a gadwall if a mallard could be taken from the same flock.
The American wigeon is similar in size and habitat preference. When fully decked out for the breeding season, males have a distinctive white breast, a green stripe through their eye, white on top of the head, a generous smattering of reddish brown on their sides. But wait, hold on…. all of these details assume good light, light behind the hunter and on the duck, good vision (on the part of the hunter, not the duck), close proximity (forget public hunting areas by the second day of the season), and so on. These conditions rarely exist in a real ducking hunting situation. So what is a hunter to do?
Montana FWP and other wildlife agencies and organizations offer waterfowl guide books. Get your hands on one with detailed images in it long before you hunt and look up the species mentioned here. These species make up about 99 percent of what a duck hunter in Montana will encounter. Perfect your identification skills by spending a lot of time outdoors in all seasons, observing ducks. This is a great way to pass time for duck hunters pre-season and it pays off during the season.
Over time you will learn through repetition to identify each duck species by their silhouette, the shape of their heads, their coloration, the way that they fly (they all fly a little differently), their calls, and the other nuances that distinguish ducks of a certain feather.
Good luck and good duck IDing to you!