Blue-winged Teal

This week for Flora and Fauna Friday it’s a quintessential dabbling duck of the Lowcountry, the Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors).

The male Blue-winged Teal is an unmistakable duck. In flight they present an entire skyline on a canvas of feathers. That flying homage to the horizon inset upon the horizon itself. A gleaming white crescent moon hangs upon his face, reflecting the sun’s rays down to the landscape of his wings. On those wings emerald field rows rise and sparkle with morning dew in a ridge beneath a wide and weary graying blue sky, obscured only slightly by a raft of opaque white clouds blowing in the distance to beyond our view. This impressive and evocative tri-colored speculum of the male Blue-winged Teal is mirrored from left to right on either wing and also encored by its cousin, the Northern Shoveler (S. clypeata). The Shoveler paints the same scene in darker tones, shadowed from the light of that moon since waned. In repose upon the water the male Blue-winged Teal is impossible to mistake, that blinding crescent glares out from a face of gunmetal-gray and is reflected back at the water’s surface, as a white block between the flank and the rump. Between these two pallid pearls is a leopard print plumage of small black spots on a coat of golden-brown. Conversely the female Blue-winged Teal is quite the utilitarian, with a camouflaged wardrobe of khaki and walnut. Her most defining feature at rest is a pale patch at the bill base and her khaki eyeliner. In flight her sky-blue shoulder is as present as ever but the green and white more reserved and reduced. In comparison to our other ducks, the Blue-winged teal is one of the smallest and with a dark gray bill that seems a bit oversized. Their call is a series of short whistling wheezes or hoarse barking quacks.

Blue-winged Teal are dabbling ducks, which means they tip forward, tail to the sky and head submerged, to feed on aquatic vegetation and to snap up seeds, insects, and crustaceans beneath the water. They are winter migrants to South Carolina but some like to take an extended vacation, arriving early in fall and staying until spring. In the Lowcountry, they prefer freshwater and brackish marshes. They’re a regular sight gathered in small flocks upon the waters of rice fields, impoundments, shallow ponds, and betwixt the weedy margins of lakes. Amongst the Lowcountry’s dabbling ducks, to me none is more consistent and reliable than the Blue-winged Teal. It’s not as awe-inspiringly abundant as the Gadwall nor as sought after as the Mallard. It’s not as weird as the Wigeon, as petite as the Green-winged Teal, as unique as the Shoveler, nor as striking in flight as the Pintail. But the Blue-winged Teal seems to me the most omnipresent. Yet, never are they so common to be boring nor so abundant to be truly dependable. A welcome sight anywhere.

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