If you’ve been duck hunting at Duck Creek this year or in years past, no doubt you’ve probably had a group of black and white ducks buzz over your decoy spread. If you were able to knock a few of these birds down, you may have had a debate with your hunting partner on whether or not it was a ring-necked duck or a lesser scaup. This article should help you settle your dispute the next time it occurs.
Well, let’s say you are doing a little scouting the day before and have come across some dark ducks resting on a piece of water. From a distance with binoculars you should be able to tell ring-necked ducks and lesser scaup apart. The top portion of a ring-neck drake (head, back, tail, and chest) is all black. The lower portion is light gray, with a white spur at the shoulder. On the other hand, a drake scaup will have a dark head, chest and tail, but their back will be lighter and have gray barring. The lower portion will be all white.
So it is past shooting hours and you’ve got birds zooming in an arc around your spread. How can you tell the difference? In flight, ring-necks have dark wings, whereas the wings of scaup have a white-edge.
Once you have a bird in the hand, you can confirm the characteristics mentioned above, but there is one last trait that can seal the deal. Although nicknames can vary from region to region, they probably came about for a reason. With these two ducks, their nicknames make sense. Ring-necks are also known as “ringbills” because of the white ring that borders the gray bill and black tip. Scaup, or “bluebills”, lack the white ring and have a predominantly blue bill with a black tip.
Although there are some similarities in appearance, these two black and white diving ducks vary in their preferred diets and habitats. While it is possible, the odds are that you won’t see large concentrations of both species in the same place. For example, ring-necks are quite common in the fall at Duck Creek because they prefer to eat aquatic vegetation instead of invertebrates and are the most common diving duck to use flooded moist soil habitats. Pool 1 and Unit A is an ideal spot for these ducks to stop and refuel before continuing on their southward trek. On the flip side, lesser scaup forage primarily on fingernail clams, freshwater snails, and freshwater clams rather than aquatic plants. You typically have a better chance of shooting these birds on large lakes or pools along the Mississippi River, where these foods can be more readily found.
In recent years, harvest regulations only allowed for two scaup to be harvested daily because of a continual decline in the long-term population estimates. Biologists have been trying to determine what has caused for this downward trend. A clear answer has been hard to come by, but may be linked to degrading habitat conditions. However, in the past two years scaup numbers have improved drastically. This year’s population estimate was a 21% increase from 2011 and is close to the long-term average for the first time since the late eighty’s. This improvement allowed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to relax their regulations this year and allow four scaup to be harvested in the Mississippi Flyway.
Although your chances for shooting a “ringbill” at Duck Creek are higher than bagging a few “bluebills”, this regulation change helps relieve the pressure of a faulty id in the field; but I don’t expect that to happen if you’ve read this article. You are on your way on becoming a dead ringer at diving duck identification.
Get out there, be safe, and have fun. I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving.