Klemek Column: Blue-winged and green-winged teals
Among the smallest ducks in North America are the species of teal. Two species of teal breed and nest here in Minnesota—the blue-winged teal and the green-winged teal. Each are puddle ducks, also called dabblers. What are puddle/dabbler ducks? These are the category of ducks that flush vertically from the surface of water and are not proficient underwater divers.
There’s something very special about teal. As mentioned, they’re not very large, measuring only around 12 to 16 inches long and with wingspans of 20 inches to around two feet. Compared to the dimensions of a mallard (around 20 – 26 inches in length with three-foot wingspans), teal are indeed tiny. But where size is lacking, energy is an equal substitute. Teal are peppy puddle ducks!
The breeding plumage of male blue-winged and green-winged teal is brilliant and attractive. These handsome little ducks’ springtime colors aren’t normally observed in the late summer and early fall in Minnesota, as molting has already taken place and young-of-the-year birds don’t have their adult plumage yet. Male “blue-wings” sport snow white crescents behind their bills, slate-blue heads, and blue wing patches.
“Green-wings”, which are the smallest wild duck in North America, are gorgeous birds. The breeding plumage of males include a cinnamon-colored head with a brilliant green crescent and green wing-patches. Ground nesting females of both species are less colored, as is the case with all species of ducks in order to better blend into their nesting habitat. Females of both species sport the characteristic colored wing patches diagnostic of their respective species.
Teal are typically the last migrant species of waterfowl to arrive to their northern breeding grounds each spring, including here in Minnesota. And they come from long distances, as far away as Brazil and Chile for some blue-wings, whereas green-wings will winter as far as Central America and even Hawaii. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a blue-winged teal that was banded in Alberta was recovered a month later in Venezuela!
Conversely, teal are the first species of waterfowl to leave their northern spring and summer breeding ranges, usually by late September or early October. And it’s for this reason that Minnesota will allow for the first time an early, experimental teal hunting season for the next three years. The five-day season will commence at sunrise on September 4 and conclude at sunset September 8.
Blue-winged teal are prolific nesters. It’s not uncommon for hens to lay as many as a dozen to 14 eggs inside the nest bowls of their well-hidden ground nests. Earlier this summer while conducting my own personal brood counts on Assawa Lake, I counted 12 ducklings following one particular hen. Meanwhile, green-winged teal don’t lay as many as eggs as do their blue-winged cousins. Typical clutch sizes for green-wings are around six to nine eggs.
As previously mentioned, teal belong to a group of ducks referred to as puddle or dabbler ducks. What this means is that teal and other species such as mallard, northern pintail, wood duck, and others, rarely dive like scaup, ring-necked, canvasback and other diver ducks do. The feeding behaviors of teal when floating on the water are typified by submerging their heads and necks below the surface to reach various plants or to tip up their bodies in order to reach food that’s deeper.
Also characteristic of puddle ducks is the manner in which they flush from the surface of the water. Rather than skittering across the water before becoming airborne like species of divers and loons must do, teal and other dabblers can launch themselves vertically from the water. And once aloft, especially teal like blue-wings and green-wings, their small size and lightening quick maneuvers give them the appearance of unusually fast fliers. Interestingly, however, teal are actually among the slowest flying ducks of all species of waterfowl contrary to what hunters think and say (about 30 mph). To compare, most other species of ducks can fly upwards of 40 – 55 mph, with the canvasback duck clocking in at over 70 mph!
Teal are special species of waterfowl. Among the most abundant of all species of ducks in North America, especially blue-winged teal, these active and attractive wild birds are sure to please as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.