It was a beautiful morning, with no wind and early-morning light at my back. I arrived at the park where I wanted to sit and watch the lake, put up my binoculars, and saw this:
|"C'mon, guys, say cheeeeese!"|
Greater Scaup! I'd already seen a pair this year, but it had been so cold that day that I couldn't take photos. Today there were 7 just 100 ft offshore and it was >30 F so I was perfectly happy to sit there for an hour, alternating between scoping the lake and digiscoping some ducks.
As usual, there were hundreds of Lesser Scaup around - Greaters being far more rare on Lake Onalaska. I had fun taking some comparison photos:
Greater Scaup on top, Lesser on bottom (probably not exactly to scale). Note the rounded heads on the Greaters with no peak at the back of the head. Greaters' heads are also a bit bigger overall. The two species were sorting themselves out nicely as the many males pursued the few females that were present.
Here's another view:
This view shows the wider bills and fatter cheeks of the Greaters (top). These birds were plowing up some serious water as they motored around, actively feeding and courting - cool to see on the very still, calm lake. One of the clearest field marks for me is the nail, which is the black tip of the bill. On some of the Greaters, it spans the whole bill-tip. The second Greater from the right has a pretty narrow nail - but you can see that it's still slightly wider than on the Lessers below. If I saw that bird alone and this was the only view I had, I would not be sure what to call it.
But the profile view can be ambiguous too:
This is a pair of Lessers, and while you can see a bit of a peak toward the back of the head of the male, he's pretty confusing. He was about to dive when I took this photo, but seemed to consistently maintain this head shape while I watched him. His bill looks wide from this angle (though of course it's hard to be sure from the side), his head looks bigger than the female's, and his head looks more green than purple (the color definitely changes with the light, but overall Greaters tend to more often show green). The white sides are supposed to be brighter on a Greater than a Lesser, but I wasn't seeing any difference in this light. But I watched and photographed this male from a few angles and he was definitely a Lesser.
This guy is a slam-dunk Lesser based on head shape and nail size, but definitely showing green at this angle:
My experience that morning was a great reminder that while these species are definitely distinguishable, static photographs can be challenging to ID. I'm much happier when I can watch the bird moving to get a view of all the field marks in a variety of postures.
There were plenty of other waterfowl around, with Canvasbacks being the most abundant after Lesser Scaup:
Photos are a little softer than I'd like with my digiscoping setup, but that's still a handsome duck!
My checklist for that hour was the first one this year that was over 40 species. With a few incidentals on my commute and another quick stop on the other side of the lake, it was my first day tallying >50 this year. Maybe someday spring will arrive and allow the rest of the birds to move through!
A Chipping Sparrow at the feeder yesterday put me at 99 for the year. What do you think will be #100?