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Watching for Waterfowl

By Gary Swant

Southwest Montana is a great place to observe waterfowl. The best places to look are Racetrack Pond, Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area, Clark Canyon Reservior, Georgetown and Silver Lakes.

I have observed four species of geese, two species of swans, and 25 species of ducks in these water features. In addition I have observed 34 species of shorebirds and waders.

In this article I want to talk about three of the less common waterfowl seen in southwest Montana.

The first is the Blue-winged Teal. State wide this bird is rather common with 2396 observation recorded with the Montana Natural Heritage Program (MNHP) as of August, 2020. It is the last waterfowl species to occur in our valley with my first sighting on May 14th. In contrast the first sighting for the Northern Pintail was March 5th. Blue-winged teal are easily recognized by the “half-moon” crescent behind the bill in the male in breeding plumage. Females and non-breeding males look alike with a much less prominent crescent in the male and only white at the base of the bill joining the white throat in the female. I typical have no more than five to ten sighting a summer locally, but they do breed in the Upper Clark Fork drainage.

The second waterfowl is the Eurasian Wigeon. This species is nearly identical to the more common American Wigeons that I typically find in the thousands locally in spring migration. The male American has a pinkish brown body, white or buffy forehead, and green swath through the eye. The European Wigeon has a pale gray body, dark rufous head and buffy forehead. The MNHP has had only 195 sighting of this species in Montana. I typically get one or two sightings a year in the Upper Clark Fork drainage. They are an early spring migrant and you do not typically see them locally in the fall. The earliest I have seen on is February 10th. As the name implies they are a European species. Evidently, individuals mingle with American Wigeons in spring migration and are accidental in North America.

The last species is the Long-tailed Duck, formerly called Old Squaw. Males in breeding plumage are obvious with long tail and black and white contrasting colors. The picture that I took is of the winter plumage. Breeding plumage is more black on the chest and head, with brown back, rather than the white back of the winter plumage. This species has been recorded in Montana 147 times. Locally I have seen them at the Warm Springs WMA, Racetrack Pond and Silver Lake for a total of 6 times since 2007. Most of these sightings were in the fall. This species is so rare locally, I have not seen one in the last four years.

You might never see a Long-tailed Duck, or Eurasian Wigeon, but certainly if you look in shallow ponds with emerging vegetation in late May and June you will find the Blue-winged Teal.

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