by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
Blue-winged teal 4 keys to ID
1. Size and Shape – A small dabbling duck, dwarfed by the mallard and only slightly larger than the Green-winged teal. Rounded head and large bill.
2. Color pattern – Breeding males are brown bodied with dark speckling on the breast and a white crescent behind the bill. Females are a patterned brown. In flight, both reveal a bold powder-blue patch on the upper wing.
3. Behavior – Pairs and small groups dabble but seldom up-end when feeding on vegetation. They are more often found around the edges of ponds under vegetation, more concealed for foraging and resting.
4. Habitat – Calm bodies of water from marshes to small lakes. Wet prairies, where grassy habitats mix with wetlands is the heart of the breeding range.
Although Southwest Florida boasts plenty of year-round resident birds of all types, we certainly celebrate our migratory visitors just as much. The Blue – winged teal, Spatula discors, is a migratory that makes its way to the islands to escape the harsh cold of the north, much like many of our human seasonal residents this time of the year.
The Blue-winged teal is a dabbling duck that is noted to be one of the first to migrate south for the winter and last to head north in the spring. It winters more extensively in South America than any of our other dabblers. Fortunately for us, Florida and several southern states along the Gulf of Mexico, are moderate enough to provide a winter residence for a number of Blue-winged teal that don’t make the trek all the way to South America.
Teal are small ducks, fast in flight that are found in freshwater ponds and marshes as well as in brackish habitats along the coast. Both habitats are common throughout Sanibel, whereas Captiva provides primarily brackish and saltwater habitats.
Blue-winged teal forage in very shallow water, feeding from the surface or swimming forward with their head partly submerged. They feed primarily on plant material, especially on seeds of various grasses, sedges and pondweeds. During some seasons, it’s been documented that they will also feed on snails, insects and crustaceans.
There is a distinct visual variation between the male and female Blue-winged teal. As shown in the photograph, the female has a relatively non-descript coarsely marked brown body, resembling a mottled duck. The male, on the other hand, is a buff color with dense black spots on the breast, a bluish-gray head and a bold white crescent in front of the eye.
The nest of the Blue-winged teal consists of a shallow depression on the ground, lined with grass and down, usually surrounded by vegetation but very susceptible to predators. Predators of the Blue-winged include snakes, snapping turtles, crows, skunks, badgers and raccoons. The majority of failing nests of the Blue-winged teal fail are due to the mammals listed. Nearly a third however of all failing nests can be contributed to invasion of crows and magpies.
The Blue-winged teal, a seasonal resident of the islands can be found in many of the calm, interior freshwater habitats around the islands. Rains in December have recharged many of these areas that are often dry at this time of the year, so viewing them should not be too difficult. Due to their distinct variation, it won’t be difficult to identify the male vs. the female which is always fun for me. As always, viewing from a distance with some good binoculars or a spotting scope is encouraged. They have a long flight home in the spring to rest up for! Enjoy!