Field Guide to Waterfowl: How to Identify, Call, and Decoy Ducks

MALLARD

ON THE WING The drake's green head and contrasting white collar are unmistakable. A white rump and breast signal a mallard drake flushing in low light, whereas the hens' white underwings give them away. (Look-alike gadwall hens have a lighter belly.) Look for a slow wing-beat that takes place mostly below the horizontal plane of the body.

IN THE HAND The drake mallard is the most readily recognized duck, but the hen can be easily confused with the black duck, gadwall, and mottled duck. Look for a bright white stripe bordering a purple speculum--blacks and gadwall don't have it, and the white stripe is barely visible on the mottled duck.

VOICE The classic quack is the call of the mallard hen. Drakes give a seldom heard, guttural, rasping kr-e-k.

FLOCK/FLIGHT PROFILE Green-head flocks can be anywhere--so high they're barely visible or so low they skim the treetops. Look for relatively lofty groups of six to 40 birds flying in a direct, steady pattern, often in the classic V or U shape.

CALL Haydel's Dirty Rice Mallard Call pumps out a "Cajun squeal" at the end of the quack note, a sound that southern Louisiana market hunters swore was the result of the birds' rice-stuffed crops restricting their air intake. ($25;318-746-3586; www.haydels.com)

DECOY Flambeau Outdoors' new standard mallard features finely detailed feathering and a paint job that would make Monet blush. ($30 for a dozen; 800-457-5252; www.flambeau.com)

DECOY SET The classic C pattern is very effective, and it can be tailored to many field situations. The open part of the C forms the landing zone, so arrange the pattern with the gap on the downwind side.

NORTHERN PINTAIL

ON THE WING With its long tail extension, or pin, the drake is rarely mistaken for another bird, but "sprigtails" can be confused with wigeon. Slender bodies and long necks are a giveaway, and the thin, gull-like wings beat in a longer arc than a mallard's or a wigeon's. Hens sport dark scalloping on the under-wing flanks, and the drake's white neck stripe is unmistakable.

IN THE HAND Brown-gray hens are similar to other pale, female dabbling ducks, but only pintails and wigeon have dark gray bills. Unlike wigeon, the upper wings of pintail hens are nearly uniformly brown or bronze, with no pale stripes along the upper edge of the speculum.

VOICE The pintail drake's call is a trilling whistle. Hens quack coarsely on the flush.

FLOCK/FLIGHT PROFILE Swift flyers, often grouping in classic Vs or long lines, pintails will descend to decoys from great heights, bombing into open water after dropping in zigzagging lines.

CALL The seven-way Iverson Combination Whistle in cocobolo or African blackwood is as elegant as the pintail drake itself. ($36-$41; 888-833-8251; www.iversonduckcalls.com)

DECOY Billed as "confidence decoys," the Eberhart pintails stick into mudflats or marsh edges with stakes. Their brilliant white breasts are very visible. ($100 for eight drakes and four hens; 415-454-2625; www.eberhartdecoys.com)

DECOY SET Pintail decoys are most often used to add visibility and species variety to a grouping of puddle duck decoys. Use drakes for their long-range visibility and mix in three to five pintails for every two dozen mallards. Or group them in large loafing flocks in the shallows.

GREENWING TEAL

ON THE WING Look for its tiny size, sharply pointed wings, a wingbeat nearly as swift as a diving duck's, and a short neck and tail. In good light, the emerald green wing patches are visible. The white breast and light underwings--especially on drakes--are a good clue when the birds are overhead or twisting and turning, and these help distinguish between greenwing teal and the bluewing variety.

IN THE HAND Early-season drakes in eclipse plumage may lack the typical red head and iridescent green eye mask and can be confused with hens. Females sport dark spotted bills and brown wing coverts; the wing coverts of the drakes are gray.

VOICE Drake greenwings are very vocal, with a high-pitched, trilling preep-preep whistle.

FLOCK/FLIGHT PROFILE Teal often fly in closely knotted groups, low over marshes but a bit higher over open water. Their erratic flight patterns and habit of swooping into the decoys like tiny rockets make them one of the most challenging birds to shoot on the wing.

CALL The drake's distinctive whistle is used to lure teal, and it's a deadly confidence call for other puddle ducks, too. The Duck Commander Teal Call does the trick. ($12; 877-396-7612; www.duckcommander.com)

DECOY Every breast spot, eye mask, and wing patch is perfect on Green-head Gear's life-size greenwing teal drake, and the hens are just as detailed. ($23 for four drakes and two hens; 800-333-5119; www.greenheadgear.com)

DECOY SET Teal dekes mixed in with mallard and other puddle duck spreads are a deadly draw. Rig three together on dropper lines that lead to a single 6-ounce weight and bunch them in tight groups.

WIGEON

ON THE WING Look for the distinctive white upper-wing shoulder patches of the males. When over-head, both sexes display an elliptical white belly surrounded by the brown-gray chest and flanks. Slightly smaller than mallards, wigeon sport longer, wedge-shaped tails than other puddle ducks.

IN THE HAND The male's white crown patch, which gives the bird the nickname "baldpate," is impossible to miss, but it can be indistinct until November. Both sexes have a short, wide, gray bill tipped with black. The hen wigeon can be confused with the hen gadwall, but the latter's bill is orange-red and its wing lacks the green stripe separating the speculum from the shoulder patch.

VOICE The drake's frequent whistle is unmistakable: three notes, the middle one rising in pitch--we-WEE-hoo. The similar whistling call of the pintail is on the same pitch.

FLOCK/FLIGHT PROFILE Wigeon fly in swift, bunched, twisting flocks, like pigeons. They're known for flying high, then dropping fast into the decoys.

CALL A small, plastic roller built into the barrel of the Primos High Roller Duck Whistle perfectly imitates the wigeon's fluttering whistle. And it's deadly on pintails, too. ($20; 601-879-9323; www.primos.com)

DECOY L.L. Bean's Coastal Cork decoy series is built with tough-as-nails Portuguese cork. Abuse them in saltwater, and they'll still outlast you. The big wigeon blocks have the baldpate down solid. ($45; 800-441-5713; www.llbean.com)

DECOY SET Wigeon frequently raft up in large groups far from shore. If you set a large J-hook pattern for a shore blind, group the wigeon decoys along the farthest point of the J.

SCAUP

ON THE WING Greater scaup are slightly larger than lesser scaup--natch--but they're fairly close in size. Greaters prefer salt and sound environments, whereas lessers congregate on freshwater, but flocks can be mixed with both kinds. To distinguish them from ringneck ducks, look for the telltale white wing patches on the scaup and the distinctive double white ring on the ringneck's bill.

IN THE HAND The broad, blue bill is characteristic, and it's the reason both greater and lesser scaup are nicknamed "bluebill." White wing bars extend past the elbow joint on greater scaup and continue halfway out the primaries; on lessers, the white patch stops at the elbow. Greater scaup drakes have a greenish sheen on the head. On the lesser, the sheen is purple, and the males have a small bump behind the crown.

VOICE In flight, bluebills utter a raspy, purring br-r-r-a-a-t, br-r-r-a-a-t. Listen for whistling wings, too.

FLOCK/FLIGHT PROFILE Scaup fly relatively low to the water, swerving back and forth in erratic, bunched groups.

CALL Imitating the purrs and barks of scaup is a snap with the Lohman Diver Duck Model BR95. This call works on ringnecks, canvasbacks, and redheads, as well. ($18;877-956-5746; www.kolpin.com)

DECOY Autumn Wings' line of urethane decoys look and perform like hand-carved wooden ones. They're available in multiple poses with glass or bead eyes, and they have a concave bottom with a weighted keel that prevents them from bobbing wildly. ($170 for four drakes and two hens in both alert and sleeping positions; 612-735-4134; www.autumnwings.com)

DECOY SET Diving ducks frequently raft up in large numbers. For bluebills, set gang lines of 12 decoys in long rows parallel to the shore. Fill in the gaps with singles.

WOOD DUCK

ON THE WING Wood ducks fly with their heads held higher than their bodies. Look for squared-off tails and broad wings that display a white stripe on the trailing edge. In flight, woodies can be confused with wigeon because of their white bellies, but the wigeon's thin, narrow wings and white shoulder patches help set it apart.

IN THE HAND With its gaudy green-and-white crest and multi-colored (red, black, white, and yellow) bill, it's hard to mistake the wood duck drake for any other. The drab hens can be confused with hen gadwall, but you can identify a woody hen by its tear-shaped, white eye-patch.

VOICE A loud, upwardly pitched, squealing w-e-e-e-e-k is commonly heard when the birds are on the water as well as when they're being flushed.

FLOCK/FLIGHT PROFILE As they careen through timber, woodies twist and turn like leaves in the wind. In open country, they fly fairly straight with swift wingbeats. Although they're usually seen in pairs or small groups, flocks can number in the hundreds.

CALL Knight & Hale's Wood Duck Call mimics the squeal of the flying woody and its resting whistle. ($11; 479-782-8971; www.knightandhale.com)

DECOY The Blackwater FUD, or "fold-up decoy," is convenient for carrying on long hikes into woody swamps. Made of closed-cell foam laminated to an outer layer that bears the artwork, the decoys unfold into three-dimensional birds that can be used on water or land. ($25 for three; 888-293-3269; www.duckdecoys.com)

DECOY SET Groups of woodies tend to have a destination firmly in mind, but singles and pairs can be lured, especially after the morning feeding flights. The classic set of two small groups of decoys to either side of the blind works well.