Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Ducks, Geese, and Swans of Maricopa County

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis

This unusual and colorful duck breeds in Maricopa County, and is locally common on a year round basis.  It nests in tree cavities or on the ground.  They are distinctive at all times, whether perched, swimming, or in flight.  Birders will often hear them in flight as well, as this odd duck gives a series of high and loud whistling notes.  In Maricopa County, these ducks may be hard to find at times despite the fact they are locally common.  The best location to view them at in Maricopa County are the Tres Rios Wetlands, at the Hayfield Site, and Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands.  Top hotspot bets for Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are: Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands (Area 7), Tres Rios Wetlands-Hayfield Site (Area 7), and Veterans Oasis Park (Area 4).


Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons

This goose can usually be found annually in Maricopa County in small numbers.  Keep an eye out for them in the migration periods and throughout winter.  Check mixed goose flocks as well.  Throughout the county, look for the Greater White-fronted Goose in fields and ponds.  Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4), Glendale Recharge Ponds (Area 7), and ponds throughout Scottsdale (Area 5) are often good places to look. 


Snow Goose Chen caerulescens

Snow Geese spend the winter in Maricopa County in uncommon numbers, where they are often joined by their smaller cousin, the Ross's Goose.  They can often be found feeding on grass bordering ponds with large numbers of Canada Geese.  Where Snow Geese are common, they may be seen in spectacular flocks by the thousands.  In Maricopa County, they may be found anywhere with large flocks of Canada Geese in ponds, lakes, and fields.  The most reliable area to find them is throughout Scottsdale (Area 5) where thousands of geese winter (mainly Canada).  In Scottsdale, the Snow Goose is most often seen in the McCormick Ranch Area. 


Ross's Goose Chen rossii

The title of North America's smallest goose belongs to the Ross's Goose.  This small goose looks like a miniture Snow Goose, but has a "cute" look to it, with a shorter neck, more rounded head, and a small and stubby bill.  The small bill lack's the wide black "grinning patch" look that the Snow Goose has.  Like the Snow Goose, the Ross's Goose breeds in tundra of the far north and winters on ponds and lakes as well as agricultural fields.  The Ross's Goose is a lot less common than the Snow Goose, and is seen in smaller numbers during migration.  In Maricopa County, the Ross's Goose is seen in midst of goose flocks, especially with groups of Snow Geese.  Both are rather uncommon in the county in numbers, but are usually easy to find by checking lakes, ponds, and agricultural fields from late fall through winter.  The best place to find a Ross's Goose is usually in the city of Scottsdale in the many ponds within golf courses and parks (Area 5), although they annually show up in ponds and agricultural fields throughout the county.  Watch the Arizona Birding Listserv for reports.


Canada Goose Branta canadensis

The Canada Goose is the most widespread goose in North America and is seen more often than any other goose.  They are seen in every state at some point during the year and are a very popular bird.  Canada Geese are seen on lakes, ponds, rivers, and agricultural fields.  They can be seen in Maricopa County throughout the year, where they are abundant in the winter months, especially in Area 5 where there are many ponds surrounded by grass for the geese to graze on.


Wood Duck Aix sponsa

The Wood Duck is one of the most beautiful ducks in North America, and is an amazing sight to see.  Both the male and female are very distinctive birds, especially the striking male.  The Wood Duck is a dabbling duck, feeding from the water's surface on plants and insects as it's main food source.  It's North American range as a breeder consists highly of eastern North America and some of western North America.  It nests in tree cavities or manmade nest boxes, and prefering wooded swamps and ponds throughout it's range.  The Wood Duck is rather hard to find in Maricopa County but is annual in small numbers, especially in more dense marshes and ponds with heavier vegetation for it to hide.  This duck is often very shy and fleeting.  Wood Ducks show up in Maricopa County at odd times during the year, but are mainly seen in late fall and through winter.  Tres Rios Weltands-both Hayfield and Overflow sites (Area 7), are some of the better locations to see this beautiful duck.  Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4) and the ponds in the Phoenix Zoo (Area 5) are also often good for Wood Ducks.


Gadwall Anas stepera

The male Gadwall is a rather plain but beautiful duck at the same time, and is very distinctive in breeding plumage.  It is seen feeding from the water's surface, eating aquatic plants.  It is very shy on it's breeding grounds in North America, but in migration and winter, it is often very viewable as it forms in large flocks.  In Maricopa County, the Gadwall is very common on ponds, slow moving rivers, and some lakes throughout the county.  It is seen in large numbers, especially from mid-fall, through all of winter, and into mid-spring.  Good places to see large numbers of Gadwalls include:  Area 2 (Granite Reef Recreation Area), Area 4 (Gilbert Water Ranch and Higley Road Ponds), Area 5 (many of the ponds in the Scottsdale area), and Area 7 (Glendale Recharge Ponds and Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands).


American Wigeon Anas americana

The American Wigeon is one of the most common and abundant ducks in Maricopa County, except during it's breeding season.  This duck is found in the area in high numbers, starting in fall, continuing through all of winter, and lasting through much of spring.  Several American Wigeons linger during the summer months.  American Wigeons are found easily in the county on ponds and other aquatic habitats, most often with grass to feed on surrounding the ponds they winter on.  They also feed on aquatic plants from the waters surface.  Golf courses with ponds and urban ponds are the best locations to see this duck in high numbers, which will have an occasional Eurasian Wigeon in the mass.


Mallard Anas platyhynchos

The Mallard duck is a famous and widespread duck, and can be found almost everywhere in North America.  This dabbling duck is extremely common in Maricopa County throughout the year, especially during the winter months when northern birds migrate south.  They are found in a variety of aquatic habitats easily in Maricopa County and are the usual duck that is seen almost everywhere.


Blue-winged Teal Anas discors

The Blue-winged Teal is a widepread breeder throughout much of North America.  This small duck feeds on the water surface in the small lakes, marshes, and ponds in midst of surrounding open areas.  Northeastern Arizona is home to the Blue-winged Teal during breeding season for our state.  Male Blue-winged Teals are very striking, having a white crescent in front of their eye.  Female Blue-winged Teals also have somewhat of a white crescent in front of their eye, although much less obvious and distinctive (see photograph below).  In Maricopa County, the Blue-winged Teal can be seen throughout much of the year whether in migration periods or in winter, although generally uncommon and seen much less often than the other two regular teal species.  The best location to find this duck in Maricopa County is at the Tres Rios Wetlands, in both the Hayfield and Overflow Wetlands sites (Area 7).  Blue-winged Teals are easily found in most areas throughout the year, but sometimes aren't as easy to find as others.


Cinnamon Teal Anas cyanoptera

The male Cinnamon Teal is one of the brightest and most beautiful ducks in North America.  It's bright cinnamon coloration is noticable and sticks out to the looking eye in any wetland habitat where it is present.  The Cinnamon Teal often prefers to forage in marshes and in thicker wetland habitats, where it is often very shy and wary of people.  Open ponds are often favored as well during migration and winter.  It is seen feeding from the waters surface, where it favors seeds of plants.  The Cinnamon Teal has a remarkable breeding range, breeding in the western North America, as well as South America.  In Maricopa County, this bird is present thoughout much of the year, where it can be observed in eclipse and breeding plumage.  It is a very common spring and fall migrant throughout much of both periods, as well as winter.  Large numbers of Cinnamon Teal are easily seen in marshes, wetlands, and large, open ponds throughout the county during these time frames.


Green-winged Teal Anas crecca

The Green-winged Teal is a very small duck, and the smallest of the dabbling ducks in North America.  It is very common in Maricopa County and is most easily seen in high numbers from early fall through winter, and continuing through mid-spring.  Large, open, and shallow ponds are the favorite for the Green-winged Teal, although marshes and rivers may be good too anywhere throughout the county where there is habitat.  This teal can fly very fast after being spooked, and it often likes to walk in shallow water while feeding. 


Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata

The bill of the Northern Shoveler is huge and very distinctive, and is what one first notices when looking at this odd duck.  The Northern Shoveler breeds throughout much of western and central North America, and is widespread in migration while wintering abundantly in the southern states and both coasts.  In shallow ponds in Maricopa County throughout much of the year, the Northern Shoveler is one of the most abundant ducks.  They start to show up in numbers starting in early fall, where they spend the entire winter, and much of spring.  For waterfowl photographers, the Northern Shoveler often gets very used to people and can be very easy to photograph. 


Northern Pintail Anas acuta

The elegant Northern Pintail is a favorite among birdwatchers of the North American ducks.  This majestic duck is very distinctive, having a "pintail" that extends far beyond it's rump.  The male perched or in flight is dramatically different than all other waterfowl in North America at all times.  Northern Pintails are widespread throughout North America and are seen in every area during the year whether breeding, migrating, or wintering.  These ducks most often prefer open and shallow ponds during migration and winter in Maricopa County.  Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4) is probably the best place this species can be observed and photographed at up close out of a large list of ponds throughout Maricopa County.  Northern Pintails are most easily observed starting in early fall and through all of winter, and continuing through late spring.  Small numbers of Northern Pintails seem to linger into the summer months anually in the county.


Canvasback Aythya valisineria

This large duck has a very unique plumage and especially a distinctive head and bill shape that instantly separates it from other ducks.  The Canvasback dives underwater to feed on aquatic plants, as well as fish and insects.  Canvasbacks favor lakes and marshes in their North American breeding range, and winter on rivers, lakes, and large ponds that have deeper water.  They are easily found on ponds and lakes throughout Maricopa County where they have room to dive.  Canvasbacks are one of the later migrants and wintering ducks to arrive in Maricopa County.  Most often, they usually show up in late fall, spend the winter, and are present through the early stages of spring.  Numbers of birds that first show up in fall may be abundant in places.  Overall in Maricopa County, the Canvasback is easily found in many ponds and lakes throughout the county, but is fairly common in numbers.  The best place to view the Canvasback in Maricopa County is at Granite Reef Recreation Area (Area 2).


Redhead Aythya americana

The Redhead is more of a fairly common bird in Maricopa County, especially in the time frames starting in mid-fall, through all of winter, and into mid-spring.  The male and female of this diving duck look drastically different, as the name Redhead was well named when looking at the male's striking coloration compared to the rest of it's body.  Redheads dive underwater to feed on their preferred diet which includes aquatic plants and insects.  Look for Redheads in Maricopa County on lakes, ponds, and marshes.  In North America, this bird is widespread especially in the Lower 48, where it is found in almost every area whether as a migrant, winter resident, or breeder.


Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris

The Ring-necked Duck is an abundant migrant and winter visitor in Maricopa County, especially on open ponds, rivers, and lakes.  They often gather in large flocks, and are seen diving underwater for their diet which includes plants and insects.  Ring-necked Ducks are observed most easily in Maricopa County in various ponds and lakes in the time frame starting in mid-fall, through all of winter, and into mid-spring.


Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis

The Lesser Scaup is another duck that is common in migration and winter in Maricopa County, where it is easily observed on lakes, rivers, and ponds throughout the county.  A good time span to see this duck starts in mid-fall, continues through all of winter, and lasts through mid-spring.  Lesser Scaups are often found in mixed flocks with other porchard ducks, especially Ring-necked Ducks.  The larger and rather rare in Arizona Greater Scaup can sometimes be found by scanning flocks of Lesser Scaup.  This is another diving duck, who dives and searches for seeds and insects. 


Bufflehead Bucephala albeola

This striking duck is a spectacular sight, and is an instant favorite among North American waterfowl.  The Bufflehead is a small duck, and is the smallest diving duck in North America.  It nests on wooded lakes and rivers in the north, which are found in some of the northern parts of the Lower 48, much of Canada, and Alaska.  The Bufflehead winters throughout much of the Lower 48, including Arizona's aquatic habitats.  It shows up later than many other ducks in late fall, is present through all of winter, and continues in fair numbers into mid-spring.  In Maricopa County, Buffleheads can be found where they have diving room, which includes deep lakes and rivers, as well as ponds (some of these ponds aren't always too deep, but are just deep enough for diving birds).  Granite Reef Recreation Area (Area 2), is the best place to observe good numbers of Buffleheads in Maricopa County, as there are higher numbers there than anywhere else in the county (there are plenty of other good locations to see them also). 


Common Goldeneye Becephala clangula

Many drake duck species in North America are simply beautiful and striking, and the Common Goldeneye adds to that category.  This diver breeds in the north on lakes and marshes, and winters throughout most of the Lower 48, where it is a late fall migrant compared to other ducks as well as an early spring migrant, leaving for the north before other duck species do.  In Maricopa County, Common Goldeneyes are best observed starting in late fall in November, continuing through winter, and most leaving in early spring by the end of March.  They are seen diving consistently when observed, which their diet consists of crustaceans and aquatic insects.  Look for them on ponds, lakes, and deep rivers that have slower moving torrents.  Many ponds and lakes in the county will hold Common Goldeneyes, but the best place in the county to observe this species regularly in good numbers is the Granite Reef Recreation Area (Area 2) at the Lower Salt River Recreation Area. 


Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus

This spectacular bird is an odd duck, and also a favorite bird among many birders.  The male Hooded Merganser raises his crest in amazing fashion during courtship display, as his crest can be raised and lowered throughout the display.  Hooded Mergansers are very common in eastern North America, and are much less common in the west.  The title of North America's smallest merganser goes out to this bird.  The Hooded Merganser has a distinctive flight pattern, which has faster wingbeats than other ducks.  It is a great diver, diving underwater for taking aquatic life, such as fish, plants, insects, and crustaceans.  In Maricopa County, the Hooded Merganser is found annually on different ponds, often in midst of the city.  The best time to observe this species would be November through March.  Good places for Hooded Mergansers are:  Area 4 (various ponds and wetlands in area), Area 5 (good chance when checking ponds within parks and golf courses), Area 7 (Glendale Recharge Ponds, Tres Rios Weltands), Area 10 (Hassayampa River Preserve at Palm Lake), and Area 13 (Fountain Hills Lake).


Common Merganser Mergus merganser

The Common Merganser is the most common merganser found in Maricopa County during the waterfowl seasons.  Male Common Mergansers have a flat head while females have a strong creast.  This large duck is also the largest merganser in North America, and it is most easily found in Maricopa County starting in November and continuing through March.  Common Mergansers often gather in huge numbers, forming spectacular flocks.  They are amazing divers, as their diet consists highly of fish, and also insects, crustaceans, and plants.  Common Mergansers are found at a list of ponds in Maricopa County annually, but good places to see them in larger flocks are:  Area 2 (Granite Reef Recreation Area),  Area 5 (McCormick Ranch Area), and Area 6 (Thunderbird Viewing Blinds Park).


Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis

The Ruddy Duck is one of the most common and abundant ducks in Maricopa County, except during the summer months.  This small duck is fun to watch during courtship and is very defensive against other male Ruddy Ducks.  It's chubby appearance and stubby tail make this duck distinctive.  The Ruddy Duck is widespread throughout much of North America in different seasons of the year, and it breeds throughout most of the west in dense freshwater wetlands.  Ruddy Ducks spend the winter on ponds, rivers, lakes, and both coasts.  Besides summer months (where they may linger), Ruddy Ducks are easily found in Maricopa County in high numbers at lakes, ponds, rivers, and marshes.


Also keep an eye out for....


Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii

Recently one species with Canada Goose, the species was split into two:  Canada Goose and the much smaller Cackling Goose.  Both species have variable races and the largest Cacking Goose (taverneri subspecies) and the smallest Canada Goose (parvipies subspecies) may overlap in size.  Some birds may have to be carefully identified, while others are distinctive and as small-sized as a Mallard duck.  Cackling Geese are rare but annual in Arizona, and Maricopa County has been a great county to find this species, usually with several records per year.  They are usually found in midst of Canada Goose flocks.  The ponds in the Scottsdale Area (Area 5) are the best places to look, although records are well scattered throughout the county.  In the photo below, an Aluetian Cackling Goose (found at Thunderbird Viewing Blinds Park) is standing with a Canada Goose.


Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope

The Eurasian Wigeon is the American Wigeon's Eurasian counterpart.  These two species are nearly identical in many ways, except in color of the drakes.  Females are extremely similar and hard to distinguish in the field and can be separated by careful study.  In the photo below, the comparison of the two species are shown in the drakes, with the Eurasian bird being the one on top.  Both also differ in voice, as the Eurasian's voice can be picked out when it is present in midst of large American Wigeon flocks.  Eurasian Wigeons are rare but regular in North America on both coasts and the interior.  Maricopa County is the best county to find Eurasian Wigeons in Arizona.  Several are found wintering in the county every year, who join large American Wigeon flocks.  The ponds in the Scottsale Area (Area 5), are usually the best places to find a Eurasian Wigeon.  Both wigeon species also hybridize frequently, beware of possible hybrids.


Greater Scaup Aythya marila

Greater Scaup winter in large numbers in western Arizona on the Lower Colorado River.  Away from the Lower Colorado River, they are much more rare throughout the state of Arizona.  They are annual in small numbers throughout the state, especially in midst of Lesser Scaup flocks.  In Maricopa, keep an eye out for this species on different lakes and ponds throughout the county.  Saguaro Lake (Area 2) has been a place where Greater Scaups have been found in recent years by a number of birders. 


Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator

The Red-breasted Merganser is the least common merganser out of the three regular North American mergansers in Maricopa County and the rest of Arizona.  It is found in higher numbers in the Lower Colorado River in western Arizona, and rare away from there.  It is mainly found as a late fall and earlier spring migrant in Maricopa County, where it is rare but annual with several sightings annually.  The first week of November is an excellent time to look for the Red-breasted Merganser in fall.  Notice the Red-breasted Merganser in the field by it's thin bill and double-pointed crest.


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