Jan/Feb 2008For Wildlife Watchers: Blue-winged teal by Rob Simbeck, photography by Jeff Mollenhauer

Until well into the 20th century, naturalists commonly viewed birds not through binoculars but along the barrels of shotguns. In an era of museum collections and posed paintings, a bird in a tree or on a pond was not nearly as useful as a bird in the hand. John James Audubon preferred very fine shot because it did less damage to the specimens. Even so, he would often shoot a dozen or more individuals to get what he considered the perfect bird for painting.

The late 20th and early 21st centuries are home to vastly different techniques, of course. One of the most interesting is banding, which is something Audubon may have been the first to do - he tied colored string to the legs of phoebes and determined that individuals returned year after year to the same nesting sites. Banding has provided us with a great deal of information, and some of the more interesting data involve the blue-winged teal. This little duck, among the first to head south from its nesting grounds in the northern Great Plains and among the last to return, has been shown to cover huge distances during its migration. A bird shot on the slopes of an Ecuadorian volcano had been banded near Delta, Manitoba, 4,000 miles away. Another taken in a marsh near Lullana, Peru had been banded six months earlier near Renoun, Saskatchewan - it had traveled 7,000 miles.

The short breeding season that separates those long journeys lends itself to the blue-winged teal's no-nonsense approach.

"They're small, not as hearty as other birds," says Dean Harrigal, a waterfowl biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, "so they've got to get to where they can make a living pretty quickly. They're the first to leave the breeding grounds and the last to get there, so when they get to the prairies, they're going to take care of business, make more, and get back down South."

Blue-winged teal (Anas discors, "Discordant Duck")

Appearance: Length 12 inches; wingspan 21 to 24 inches. Distinctive blue wing patch.

Range and Habitat: Much of northern United States and Canada. Coastal migrant fall and spring in South Carolina, winter resident August through May.

Reproduction: Nests on Great Plains marshes, lakes and ponds. 9 to 12 young.

Viewing Tips: Fall and winter along coast. Choice spots are the Savannah and Santee national wildlife refuges, the Santee Coastal Reserve and Bear Island Wildlife Management Area for dates when properties are closed to general visitation.

They hit South Carolina by mid-August, normally spurred into movement not by bad weather but by the amount of daylight, and they are present in the state until May. South Carolina is the winter home for some blue-winged teal and a layover for others en route to or from wintering grounds that range from the Gulf Coast and Florida to South America.

Early in migration males are in eclipse plumage, the duller late-summer color variation striking only for the blue wing patches that are visible in flight and that give them their name. Come the first of the year, though, the males are in their peak breeding plumage, regaining their status as one of the most beautiful of the ducks.

The male is a symphony of pattern and color, with mottled leopard-skin breast and sides, striking blue bill and nape, wings with blue seemingly dipped in white, then black, a black tail, a black stripe down the center of the head and white swooshes between eye and bill. Get them in the right light, and they are truly gorgeous. The female is a much duller mottled brown with the blue wing patch.

Their vocalizations are another matter. The Latin name, Anas discors, means discordant duck, and it's a safe wager it has something to do with the call, a nasal bleat like you'd get blowing through a New Year's Eve party favor without the curled paper.

Blue-winged teal are about a foot long, with wingspans a little under 2 feet, and they're often spotted in groups dabbling in shallow water, their heads and necks submerged at times, feeding on aquatic plants and waste grain, along with some insects and mollusks.

After the mallard, this is the most abundant duck in North America, with an estimated population last year of 6.7 million. Blue-winged teal will nest across much of the northern United States and Canada, but they are particularly at home in the ponds and potholes, swamps and sloughs of the Great Plains. Despite the continuing loss of wetlands, blue-winged teal are doing well, thanks in part both to early migration, which helps them reach favored wintering habitats early, and the ability to use small, shallow ponds.

"They use available habitat very quickly from a biological point of view," says Harrigal. "A lot of times I've gone into flooded crop fields after there have been five or six inches of rain in August or September and there's a flock of blue-winged teal." They will similarly use small, shallow bodies of water in breeding.

Pair formation can start while they are still on winter grounds. The nest - a little hollow lined with grass and down - is generally hidden in tall grass near ponds and potholes or in marshes. Once it is established, the birds can be at their noisiest, with the male peeping excitedly and the female quacking, especially when the nest or young are disturbed. The female lays from nine to twelve cream-colored eggs and incubates for twenty-three to twenty-four days, often as the male stands guard. The ducklings hatch covered in yellow down with a grey-brown stripe, and they are able to leave the nest shortly after hatching. They fledge in about six weeks.

The adults molt in July and start the journey south again in August in small flocks, their wings beating rapidly. In South Carolina, blue-winged teal are most likely to be spotted along the coast in the preserves and natural areas. Aesthetically, the best time to view them is after the first of the year, when the males are in peak breeding plumage.

"I have seen birds in the middle of July here," Harrigal says, "but I haven't seen a hen with a brood. Other wildlife biologists have told me they've seen nesting birds, but it's very uncommon." Still, there are plenty to observe in the winter - the number taken by hunters alone annually in South Carolina is eight to ten thousand - and with their population strong, the blue-winged teal will remain an impressive and colorful part of the state's outdoor treasure.

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