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The Lesser Scaup

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A duck lesser in name only.

In the time before the invention of last names (which was related to taxation purposes, by the way), people were often identified by some distinctive characteristic. For example, there might have been in any village in Medieval England a James the Short, a Mary the Tall, or a Peter the Lame. A list of kings from Medieval France will find a Louis the Fat, a Louis the Quarreler, and a Charles the Affable. And how about these: Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad—the parents of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Wow! I could have fun with this, starting with my in-laws.

And thus is our bird of the month: the Lesser Scaup. A great bird by any other measure. So what if it is a wee bit smaller than its larger cousin, the Greater Scaup. It is not lesser by any other measure. 

The Lesser Scaup is probably one of the most common ducks in our area. In fact, it is one of the most common ducks in everybody’s region in that it is, either because of summer range, winter range, or migration, one of the most commonly seen waterfowl in North America.  In our neck of the woods it is typically a year-round resident. 

So what is a Lesser Scaup anyway and how does it differ from a Greater Scaup? Scaups are medium-sized diving ducks, meaning they make their way in the world by chasing their sustenance under water. Scaup feed on aquatic plants, insects, mollusks, and other underwater critters they can catch. Lesser Scaups are primarily freshwater birds and Greater Scaups saltwater birds, therefore you’ll mostly see the Lesser inland on lakes and ponds, whereas Greaters like the coastal regions. Both species breed in the far north of North America, where their ranges might then overlap. Otherwise, in the winter, they are distinct populations as the one remains inland and the other hugs the coasts. 

The origin of their name is unknown. When pronounced, it rhymes with top. Some authorities believe that the name came as a description of the hen’s call, as they are much noisier than the drakes. Others suggest that the name came from the Scottish word for clams, one of the primary foods of the Greater Scaup in northern Europe. I like the former idea better, as the birds often make a noise—to my ears—that resembles “ska, ska.” 

Scaups are pretty birds. The males appear to be black and white when on the water. With binoculars, that dark head turns to a deep metallic blue, purple, or green depending on the angle of view and the play of the light. The eye is a distinctive yellow, though this is not a good field mark. A lot of dark-headed male ducks also sport such colored eyes. The bill of the male is a soft baby blue during breeding season, which gives these birds its common name of “bluebill.” If you can get a good view, you’ll also notice a black nail on the tip of the bill. Again, from the water, both the bow and stern of the scaup is dark, though more black in shade than the head. 

Besides the bill, what really marks the scaups—either Lesser or Greater—is the coloration of the back and flanks of this bird while paddling around on the lake. The sides are a perfect color of white and it is quite striking in comparison to the forward dark colors of the male bird, with a clear line of demarcation between the dark and light. The back of the bird might appear white or gray from a distance, but closer inspection finds a beautiful tweed pattern of dark grays and whites. These are truly lovely birds, though you will need a good pair of binoculars to fully appreciate them. When out of the water, the male’s white belly becomes apparent, demonstrating that the white coloration is a wide band around the bird. 

As is common with most female waterfowl, the scaup hen is covert in coloration. She will be nondescript light brown in coloration, head to tail tip, though dark shades will blend in and out on her back. The hen also sports a yellow eye, and there is normally some sort of white patching on the face around the bill. The bill might be light blue, black, gray, or combinations thereof. As noted above, the hens tend to be noisy and the drakes mute. I guess they’ve just got nothing to say.  

One of the most difficult things for a birder to do in North America is to differentiate between a Greater and Lesser Scaup in the field. It is probably not possible, though your birding guides will make suggestions. I like what the Sibley “Guide to Birds” has to say: the “oft-discussed head… differences in scaup are essentially useless in the field.” Meaning, you can look for the supposed field marks, but you probably can never be definitive. What seems to be the primary difference is that the Lesser Scaup appears to have a peaked crown of the head, sometimes with a wee little tuff, whereas the Greater Scaup’s cranium is smoothly rounded. The differences probably only become apparent when the birds are at rest on the water and you can make comparisons. 

Yes, the Greater Scaup is greater in size than the Lesser Scaup, but undoubtedly a big Lesser is the equal of a small Greater. One possible way to differentiate between them is viewing the birds in flight. The Greater Scaup’s white trailing wing band (view from the top of the wing) extends as an arc across both the primaries and the secondaries (from almost the tip of the wing to its base), whereas the Lesser’s wing band extends only through the secondaries (half the wing’s length, beginning at the base). Beyond this, habitat—saltwater versus freshwater—might be your best bet. 

Whew, that was confusing! But beyond that, these are beautiful birds, whether Lesser or Greater. So here is an assignment for you. Get out the binoculars, put on your Deerstalker cap (think Sherlock Holmes), fire up your pipe, head for a quiet pond or lake with ducks on it, and see if you can spot the field marks as described above. That, my friends, is one of the elementary joys of bird watching. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

A Bird in Hand, Lesser Scaup, ducks

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