Outdoors

Colorful ducks making their way back to Eastern Iowa

Brandon Caswell/correspondent

Three Redhead males and a female thrive in some open water at Pleasant Creek SRA north of Palo in late February.
Brandon Caswell/correspondent Three Redhead males and a female thrive in some open water at Pleasant Creek SRA north of Palo in late February.
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As winter relinquishes its grasp on Eastern Iowa, we will soon see our lakes and rivers open to a plethora of colorful ducks.

As many as 24 regular duck species will potentially dabble in shallow puddles, while others will be diving in deeper bodies. In fact, Iowa’s wild ducks are generally divided by their act of foraging.

Dabbling ducks typically feed in shallow, freshwater areas by combing their bills through inundated substrate. They often “upend,” rocking their head and front parts into a submerged position as they feed. The classic dabblers in our area include Mallard, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler and teal species.

Divers, however, take a much different feeding approach. They are highly skilled swimmers, often completely submerging for many seconds as they access food on the bottom of lakes and rivers. This group includes Ruddy Duck, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead and three merganser species.

Sea ducks also fit this classification and include three species of scoters and Long-tailed Duck. Two such divers, each possessing red heads, will be the focus from here on.

The aptly named Redhead and Canvasback can often be found rafting together with other diving ducks. Male Redhead has a bright red head and neck with golden-colored eyes. Their bill is blue with a black tip. The body is blackout front and toward the rear. The majority of their midsection is gray. Redhead females are a light brown overall with an even lighter neck and eye ring.

Male Canvasback have a darker toned head and neck and bright red eye. The red diffuses into a dark cap. Bill coloration also is dark. On the water, Canvasback males will look like they have a dark breast (similar to Redhead males) with a full white body ending is a dark tail region. Females have a similar color tone as female Redhead, but their midsection is paler.

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One of the best field distinctions between Redhead and Canvasback is head shape. Redhead has a rounded crown, while Canvasback had a gently sloped forehead that smoothly transitions into a long, pointed bill.

Diving ducks are more often distant and a spotting scope is usually required. Dabblers and divers can form multispecies rafts as they float on the surface of water.

Roller dams can be a great place to see dabbling and diving ducks up close. Pleasant Creek SRA north of Palo, Cedar Lake in Cedar Rapids and the North Arm of Lake Macbride are other good locations for divers. Cone Marsh, south of Lone Tree, offers a good mix of duck types and probably is one of the better places in Eastern Iowa to see the largest diversity of waterfowl.

Hawkeye WMA and Terry Trueblood RA, both in Johnson County, also offer great accessibility and habitat. Mississippi River Lock and Dam No. 14 near LeClaire can be another excellent place to see divers up close. Some diving species might linger in our area into early May before taking off to their more northerly breeding grounds.

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