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Mystery brown duck (late September, Monterey, California). Photo by Brian Sullivan.

Ducks are fun to watch because they’re large, they sit out in the open, and the males are beautifully colorful. In fact breeding males are so distinctive that they draw many a birder’s attention away from the less colorful members of the flock. But taking a closer look at brown ducks can open a whole new level of appreciation, and can even add a few species to your day’s checklist.

A brown duck in late fall could be a female, an immature male, or even an adult male that hasn’t molted into his colorful plumage yet. To figure them out, you’ll want to look for anything that’s not brown—such as the wings—to reveal their identity. Let’s take the above picture as an example.

Step 1. What do we see?

Let’s use the four basic keys to bird identification—the four most important questions to go over in your mind as you look at a bird:

Size & Shape: this bird is clearly shaped like a duck with a chunky body and a wide, flat bill. The bill is fairly thin for a duck, and the bird has a fairly long body and short tail. There’s little else around for scale to help judge its size.
Color Pattern: The bird is brown with some gray tones, and it’s pretty much entirely patterned, with no blocks of solid color.
Behavior: It’s walking in shallow water, not swimming, and it’s picking food off the surface.
Habitat: It’s in a flooded crop field.

Step 2. To which group does this bird belong?

Okay, we know it’s a duck, and we know it’s snatching something from the surface. Ducks fall into two main categories—divers and dabblers. We wouldn’t see a diving duck walking to pick food off the surface, since they have legs positioned farther back on the body, making them very awkward on land. Dabbling ducks, on the other hand, are pros at searching for food in shallow water and mudflats.

And what if they’re on the water? Dabbling ducks tend to be taller at the stern than the more streamlined, tapered divers. Also, dabblers tend to be patterned with spots, streaks, and chevrons. Most divers are a more even shade of brown.

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Compared to the mystery duck (left), this female Lesser Scaup (right) is a more even, less patterned brown and has a streamlined shape especially at the tail. It’s also on a deeper body of water, and would not typically be seen in very shallow water. Lesser Scaup photo by Brian Sullivan.

Step 3. Which species?

Now that we know this is a dabbling duck, we can narrow the species list. One species can be quickly ruled out based on Size & Shape: the Northern Shoveler’s enormous bill jumps out as distinctive no matter how confusingly brown the rest of the bird is.

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The mystery duck has a much smaller bill than this female Northern Shoveler (at right), photographed by Chris Wood.

It always pays to consider the most common species in a group. Mallards are everywhere, but the females are fairly easy to confirm with their orange-and-black bills and their blue wing patch (speculum) bordered in white.

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This female Mallard (at right) shows its distinctive orange-and-black bill and a hint of a blue speculum in the folded wing. It’s also much more coarsely patterned than our mystery bird (left).  Mallard photo by Laura Frazier.

Northern Pintails are small dabbling ducks with a distinctive shape and color tone. It can take some practice, but look for their warm brown tones, graceful long neck, and relatively thin bill.

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Despite overall similarities in body color and bill color, the Northern Pintail (right) is a crisp, warm brown and has a graceful outline thanks to a long neck and tail. Northern Pintail by Jason Crotty.

Blue-winged Teal (and Cinnamon Teal) have slightly larger bills and would lack the buffy stripe near the tail. These teal also have powder-blue patches on the wing, although this is often not visible when their wings are folded.

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This Blue-winged Teal (right) has similar patterning to our mystery duck (left), but it doesn’t have that buffy stripe near the tail. It also is showing a bit of its powder-blue forewing patch, which is most often visible in flight. Blue-winged Teal by Philip Dunn.

Coming back to the Color Pattern details we noticed earlier, this bird’s buffy stripe near the base of the tail and green peeking out in the wing point toward a Green-winged Teal. The green speculum is often hard to see on birds that aren’t flying, but that buffy stripe is nearly always visible, making it a valuable clue to remember.

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Our mystery bird (right) is a Green-winged Teal. The bird at right, also a Green-winged Teal, doesn’t show the green speculum, but the buffy stripe near the tail is still there as a helpful clue. Photo at right by Cornell Lab.

One final clue would have been size—if there had been other ducks in the photo to compare with. Green-winged Teal are astonishingly small ducks and in flocks their size difference is usually apparent.

There are a few other common dabbling duck species that it pays to look at when confronted with a brown duck: Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck—but we’ll leave those for you as a homework exercise. Looking at brown ducks is a great skill-builder that will have you picking up on subtler aspects of size, shape, and color in no time—not to mention enjoying those fine shades of brown and intricate feather patterns. Hope you enjoy!

More ways to have fun and build your identification skills:

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Here’s a list of holiday gift suggestions to appeal to any bird or nature lover on your list. These are gifts that improve the mind, create fun, and highlight the beauty of the natural world. A portion of the proceeds from all these items will support the Lab’s bird education and conservation efforts. Check out our website for a full list of holiday “birdy” gifts.

Cornell Lab 2015 Calendar2015Calander
Spend a year with the birds! This new calendar features great photos with fascinating facts about each species. This colorful cast of characters is yours with a gift to the Lab of $10 or more. ($10)

Project FeederWatch
You can now give FeederWatch as gift, introducing friends and family to this long-running citizen-science project. By submitting bird observations to the Lab, participants contribute to scientific understanding and learn more about their backyard friends along the way. In order for the kit to arrive by December 24, please order by November 30. ($18)

Tutorials and Webinars
The gift of knowledge is priceless. Cornell Lab tutorials and webinars will appeal to beginning and intermediate birds who can’t get enough about bird identification and behavior. The “Be a Better Birder” self-guided tutorials and one-hour, expert-led webinars on ID for shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors each put greater bird knowledge well within reach. ($10 to $29 each)

MasterSet BundleBird Sounds and BNA: Master Set Bundle
This year the Lab is offering a special pairing of the Cornell Guide to Bird Sounds: Master Set for North America and the unparalleled Birds of North American Online reference. This combo includes a one-year subscription to BNA Online, the most complete source of  information for the more than 700 species of birds that breed in Canada and the United States.  Each species account includes the latest science as well as photos, sounds, and videos of interesting behaviors. The new, revised Master Set includes multiple examples of sounds for each of 737 bird species—a total of more than 4,900 tracks. This version of the Master Set requires less storage space than the original. ($69.99; a 20%  savings over separate purchase of these items)

Essential Set Bundle
This package includes a six-month subscription to Birds of North America Online and the Cornell Guide to Bird Sounds: Essential Set for North America. The Essential Set provides the most common sounds of 729 bird species found in North America with 1,379 tracks. ($24.99; save more than 30% over purchase of these items separately)

Birds and Beans Gift Set—Coffee for Everyone!CoffeeGift
Just in time for the holidays, get more than 25% off this special gift set. It contains a dozen 12-ounce bags of Bird-Friendly certified coffee, including Wood Thrush Breakfast Roast, American Redstart Light Roast, Scarlet Tanager French Roast, and more. Ground or whole bean available. Your purchase supports organic, fair trade, shade-grown coffee farms that shelter migratory birds. A portion of the proceeds supports Cornell Lab conservation efforts. ($115, includes shipping)

BirdSleuthCardsBirdSleuth Game Cards
Hit the deck! This deck of 5″ x 7″ game cards from the Cornell Lab’s BirdSleuth K-12 program has full-color images of the 36 most common backyard birds, plus games and a bonus online quiz. With each purchase you also receive a finch sock feeder, two bird ID posters, and BirdSleuth Investigator, the program’s kid-friendly publication. ($14.95)

Bird Spy Bingo Cards
This is a great stocking stuffer from the Cornell Lab’s BirdSleuth program! Each dry-erase card invites kids outside to look for birds. Spotting a group of birds, a colorful bird, a feather, or even bird droppings can help you win bingo! Play while traveling, out for a walk, or just sitting in your backyard. Cards are available in English and Spanish. ($1.50)

Bird Apps
Find more birds with BirdsEye, upload sightings from the field with BirdLog, or discover 24 North American birds in four games for kids with My Bird World ($4.99–$19.99). Then toss in the Merlin Bird ID® app for good measure to help beginning birders ID more than 400 North American species—it’s free!

Cornell Lab Membership
Lab membership supports efforts to improve the understanding and protection of birds around the world. The quarterly Living Bird magazine is included with every one-year supporter gift membership. ($44) You can introduce someone new to the Lab at the one-year Newsletter level ($29) and they will receive our All About Birds newsletter geared for beginning to intermediate bird watchers.

For more gifts that support the Cornell Lab, check out our full holiday shopping guide.

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By Hugh Powell. Top image by Marcello Gomes via Birdshare.

In 2003, a movie called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill told the story of an eccentric, sensitive, periodically homeless man named Mark Bittner and the flock of 40+ cherry-headed conures (technically, Red-masked Parakeets) he had befriended in San Francisco, California. The movie’s mix of keen observation and exceptional tenderness toward its stars, both human and parakeet, turned it into an audience favorite. Eventually it earned the fourth-highest gross for any documentary film about animals.

At the time, few people probably paid attention to the logo of the production company, Pelican Media, as it flashed onscreen during the opening credits. But this week, with the release of producer/director Judy Irving’s remarkable next film, Pelican Dreams, her company’s name illustrates how long she has been fascinated by these familiar but strange, stupendously gawky birds. In fact, Irving says, the Wild Parrots story was originally an interruption to her pelican project.

Now she’s turned back to her first love, and Pelican Dreams is both a natural progression from Wild Parrots and a close companion in terms of its tone and approach. Pelican Dreams features more of Irving’s detailed natural history footage, but this material never overshadows the questions she is really interested in: What does it mean to be wild? How closely can a wild animal live to humans and retain its essential nature? When we project our wishes and longings on animals, what does it say about our own wildness? You can watch this movie and join the director in pondering these imponderables, or you can watch it for the beautiful natural history sequences—it works both ways.

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““Gigi” stops traffic on Golden Gate Bridge in the opening scene of Pelican Dreams. Photo courtesy Judy Irving/Pelican Media.

The stars of Pelican Dreams are two young Brown Pelicans undergoing rehab. One was found emaciated during a traffic jam on Golden Gate Bridge; Irving names her “Gigi.” The other, “Morro,” is cared for in a Doctor Doolittle-like homestead owned by rehabilitators near Morro Bay, in central California. Irving follows these pelicans and the people who care for them as the birds recuperate, bond with their caretakers, and attempt to regain enough strength to return to the wild.

Along the way, we take detours to breeding colonies in California’s Channel Islands and in Baja California, to a “Coney Island for pelicans” on an island in the Columbia River, to fishing boats and wharves where fishermen fling bones and fish heads to waiting pelicans, not realizing the birds will choke on these big scraps. We learn about how DDT almost doomed these birds to extinction, and we briefly visit the Gulf of Mexico for a few heartbreaking seconds of a pelican mired in Deepwater Horizon oil (footage originally shot by a Cornell Lab team).

In Wild Parrots, Irving took the unorthodox approach of inserting herself into the margins of the film. In Pelican Dreams, she goes even farther and makes an intensely personal movie. Though it brings in the varied voices of rehabilitators, biologists, fishing captains, and members of the public, the central voice is Irving’s. It’s a tribute to her filmmaking that she can balance natural history, two narrative arcs about injured birds, and her own sense of yearning and wonder in a movie that also features long, quiet stretches of beautiful cinematography and music. There’s no hyperbole, no melodrama, no forced humor. Her narration is honest, plaintive, vulnerable.

She’s also unabashedly sentimental. As Wild Parrots did with its stars, this movie relentlessly asks how Gigi and Morro are feeling, whether they’re lonely, whether they may fall in love someday, whether they are trying to teach us something, whether they dream. This focus on the inner soul of a pelican may rankle some viewers looking for a more measured view of the animals themselves. On the other hand, this is also the emotional cord that ties many people to animals, that lies close to the heart of the environmental ethic, and that made Wild Parrots such an affecting story for so many moviegoers.

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Judy Irving (filmmaker) & Gigi (pelican) in the aviary at International Bird Rescue. Photo courtesy Judy Irving/Pelican Media.

And in this movie, Irving wisely balances her own heart-on-sleeve viewpoint with the studious approach of Gigi’s rehabilitator, Monte Merrick. He bears a passing resemblance to Mark Bittner: glasses, kindly demeanor, curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. But unlike Bittner, Merrick is resolutely scientific with his charges. He evaluates their weight, determines their sex by their bill length; reaches down their throats to feed them Pedialyte; measures their progress toward flight; refers to them by their band numbers. When Irving suggests they give Gigi her name, he politely declines, “so that we remember that they’re not pets.” When his patients are fit enough to return to the wild, he does not attend the releases.

That’s not to say he’s unfeeling—in a cage full of nearly identical pelicans, he remarks on how much cuter Gigi is than the others. To soothe her during her initial physical exam, he calls her “sweetie pie.” His pragmatism and emotional distance are a different, but no less caring, approach than Irving’s.

For moviegoers, pelicans are perhaps a slightly harder sell than parakeets, which are cute, colorful birds with big eyes and a tendency to nuzzle and preen each other. Parakeets are as cute as we wish we were; pelicans (on land, anyway) are as gawky as we fear we are.

Fortunately for viewers, that earthbound goofiness is balanced with shots of wild birds in their element, soaring on rock-solid wings or half-twisting in midair to plunge arrowlike into the water. Irving has a few moments of genius camera angles that create a kind of transcendent film beauty: I could watch slow motion shots pretty much forever of pelicans diving in a frenzy into a school of sardines.

There’s also an ingenious half-in-the-water shot that shows the birds feeding at the surface. Paddling their big feet, plunging with their bills after fish, they are caught midway between their awkwardness on land and their imperturbable grace in the air. Irving is caught too, between attachment to the pelicans she has come to know, and her desire to restore them to wildness. Perhaps the closest she, or we, can come to joining them is to follow them with her camera lens until they disappear into the northern California fog.

Pelican Dreams is 80 minutes long, rated G. It opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 7, 2014. You can find more information, including theaters and dates, at the Pelican Dreams website.

More Cornell Lab movie reviews:

Watch the Pelican Dreams trailer:

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Sure, the shiny bells and whistles of the bird world—those bright and cheery warblers—have mostly winged their way south to wintering grounds by now. But it’s still fall, and migration’s not over yet! There are still plenty of birds to see, with new arrivals every day.

Late fall means you have to venture out from those wooded warbler hot spots and into new habitats to find sparrows, waterfowl, and shorebirds. Here are a few places that could be hopping right through Thanksgiving.

Weedy Fields for Sparrows
Overgrown pastures, abandoned lots, fields gone fallow—all are havens for the next big wave of migrants to arrive after warblers: sparrows. Looking for sparrows along grassy trails cut in fields can be fun because your birds will flush as you walk and hopefully land on a branch just ahead of you in clear view. Keep an eye out for White-throated Sparrows in the East, Golden-crowned Sparrows in the West, Eastern Towhees in the South, and White-crowned Sparrows and American Tree Sparrows all over.

Mudflats and Marshes for Dabbling Ducks
Late fall is to ducks what September is to warblers—prime migration time. Dabblers are ducks that skim the surface of the water for seeds, aquatic vegetation, and invertebrates, so look for them in shallower waters. This group includes some handsome ducks: the Green-winged Teal with its iridescent green face mask, the Northern Pintail with its elegant tail plume, and the dashing Wood Duck. Females and young of these species tend to migrate earlier and move farther south, while males only move when the cold weather hits.

Bigger Lakes and Reservoirs for Diving Ducks
Divers are ducks that plunge underwater and paddle with their large feet to reach mollusks, invertebrates, fish, and submerged aquatic vegetation. Accordingly, diving ducks such as Common Goldeneyes and Common Mergansers favor deeper waters. The gales of November bring a bluebill wind out of the North, as rafts of Lesser and Greater Scaup sweep out of Canada. Hardy divers are pushed south by Old Man Winter; they migrate as their northern waters freeze over.

Coastal Beaches for Shorebirds
The waning days of autumn are too cold for sunbathing or building sandcastles, but if you’re a shorebird it’s the perfect time to snag invertebrates from piles of seaweed washed up on the beach. Large numbers of Sanderlings and Willets settle into their wintering grounds along seacoast beaches in November and early December. Likewise, huge congregations of Dunlins can be found in estuaries and muddy bays. Along the East Coast, it’s the perfect time to add the stout little Purple Sandpiper to your life list, but don’t be fooled—they’re not purple, more gray and white. On the West Coast, look for Black Turnstones and Surfbirds that spend their days foraging on rocky coastlines.

Need Some Help Finding Nearby Hotspots?

eBird contains a Google Maps-like tool for timely birding. Just visit ebird’s Hotspot Explorer, enter your location, and you’ll find a map with pinpoints of hot birding locations. You can narrow the results by date, too, if you like. Click through the pinpoints to see up-to-date lists of what local birders are seeing at these locations right now. Here’s more on how to use Hotspot Explorer.

For more on migration:

(Top image: American Tree Sparrow by Adam Bender via Birdshare.)

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