Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ring-necked Duck-- Aythya collaris

Male Ring-necked Duck, Irvine Regional Park. Note the dark back. 
Please note all photographs are copyrighted by Karen McQuade unless otherwise stated.  All rights reserved.

North American natives, Ring-necked Ducks spend the fall and winter in Orange County's fresh water lakes, streams, ponds, and occasionally estuaries.  They are diving ducks.  This is the kind of duck that disappears suddenly under the water's surface just as you snap a picture, and all you get is a picture of a ring of water.  Once they start diving, they pop up and dive back down very quickly.  If you can catch them when they are resting, grooming, or just cruising the lake or stream, you will get a good chance to study them.

Ring-necked Duck hen.  Note the distinctive, white eye ring.
Notice that the female has a white ring near the black tip of her bill, and white eye rings surrounding her brown eyes.  She is brown, but usually more of a grayish brown, and her head reaches a peak behind the eye.   The peak is actually a bit of a crest.  Both sexes have a crest.  (In the hen, the crest is a slightly darker brown than her cheeks.)  The crest creates a profile that is unique among North American Ducks.  If you are unsure it is a Ring-necked duck you are seeing, check  the shape of the head. It should peak behind the eye creating a long, sloped forehead.  But be aware that lighting, angle, and other factors can alter what you see. Sometimes one field mark may be so distinctive that it is will be all you need, but often you will need a group of field marks to identify ducks--especially the hen.

Two Ring-necked drakes.  Note the white hooks at the shoulder.

Ring-necked Ducks drakes are black and white.  Note that the back is solid black.  No patterns.  There is a white hook or comma at the shoulder.  Like the hen, there is a white ring above the black tip of its slate-gray bill.  The drake's eyes are yellow-orange, but in certain lighting can look yellow.  Ring-necked Ducks winter over much of the United States and Mexico.  They breed mostly in Canada and Alaska and a smidgen of the northern United States, including a small, isolated area of Arizona.

Ring-necked Ducks have white at the base of the bill.

Ring-necked ducks are seasonally monogamous with the drake staying until incubation.  After that, the hen does all the heavy lifting of incubating the eggs and raising the ducklings.  Ring-necked Ducks do not nest in Orange County, California.

Male Ring-necked Duck with cinnamon ring showing.

The ring in the species name is usually not seen.   It is a faint, poorly-defined cinnamon ring around the drake's neck.  It can rarely be used to identify a male Ring-necked Duck. Check out the picture above in which the ring is visible. I was lucky to catch site of it.

Ring-necked Duck hen.  Notice the white ring near the tip of the bill.

Note the high forehead in the photograph above.  Again, note that the hen has a darker crest, a white eye ring, white around the bill and lighter cheeks.

Notice that the Ring-necked Ducks are smaller than the Mallards behind them.

It is common to see Ring-necked ducks in small to large groups.  They don't often hang out alone.

Two drakes in a bit of a wrestling math.  Notice the cinnamon ring around the drake on the right.

These two males in the picture above were swimming along together, and suddenly started fighting and trying to dunk each other until one finally dove under the water and got away.  Very like teenagers.  Caused quite a lot of splashing.  The cinnamon ring around the neck of the duck on the right is partially visible.

I am including a lot of pictures in different poses so you can see how they look when you don't get the guide book view of male Ring-necked Ducks.

Notice the shape of the head, and the solid black back and head and the solid white sides.

In the picture above, the white ring is difficult to see, but the black tip is easily seen.  The white hooks on the shoulder can't be seen, but the back is solid black, the eye is yellow, and the crest peaks behind the eye creating a long forehead.  It is easily identified as a male Ring-necked Duck.

Ring-necked Duck

The duck above has the solid white and solid black, the ring on the bill, the crest, and long forehead.  It is a Ring-necked drake.

Notice that the tip of the bill is black.  See the thin cinnamon ring around the neck?

Identifying the drake above is easy even though it is not the typical guide-book view.  The duck has a visible cinnamon ring on the right side of the neck.  The forehead is long, the bill has a white ring above the black tip.  The black and white are solid, not patterned.  It is a male Ring-necked Duck.

Notice the solid black back, the white at the base of the bill, and the pointed head.
All field marks are visible, but not at the usual angle.  The crest peaking behind the eye, the partially visible cinnamon ring, the solid colors.  The ring on the bill above the black tip.  The yellow eyes.  It is a male Ring-necked Duck.

Ring-necked Duck standing in the shallows.  The comma at the shoulder is more pronounced.
Long, sloped forehead, and the white comma at the shoulder, the solid colors and other field marks are evident.  We can easily identify this drake.  It is a Ring-necked Duck.


The iridescent black, the crest, the color of the eyes, the clearly defined white at the base of the bill all tell us what species this is.

Note the peaked, brown head, lighter cheeks, and brown eyes.

The peak or crest of the Ring-necked Duck peaks just behind the eye.  The female in the above picture shows the classic field marks: peaked head peaking behind the eye, crest darker than the cheeks, gray bill with white ring just before the black tip, and a white ring around the eye.  And the female Ring-necked Duck is definitely a brown-eyed gal.  No orange-yellow or yellow eyes here.

Differentiating species from the Ring-necked Duck 


Because Ring-necked Ducks are black-and-white, they often get confused with two other black and white diving ducks Greater and Lesser Scaups.   Let's look at them carefully.

Ring-necked Duck, Drake. Note the neat, white border at the base of the bill.

In the picture above note the clearly defined areas of white and black on the body, and black, white, and slate gray on the bill.  Notice the long, sloping forehead.  Then notice how different the clean, crisp look of the Ring-necked Duck is from the Lesser and Greater Scaups.

Lesser Scaup male from WikiCommons--Photographer stevehdc.  No back back.  The head is not peaked like the Ring-necked. 
Note that neither the Lesser (above) nor the Greater Scaup (below) have either a white border of any kind at the base of the bill, nor do they have a white ring before the back tip of the bill--both of which the Ring-necked Duck drake has.  The white on the sides merges into a fine pattern of black and white on both scaups. 

Greater Scaup drake.  Note the rounded head, solid blue bill and light, patterned back.

The tips of the bill are different. The Ring-necked drake, has black on the entire tip of his bill, not just a dot of black like the Greater and Lesser Scaups. 

Greater Scaup--WikiCommons Calibas Notice the little bit of black at the tip of the bill.  Very different than the larger black tip of the Ring-necked Duck.

Notice how different the shape of the head is on the Ring-necked Duck.  The Scaups have a more rounded look with no long, sloping forehead.

Male and female Greater Scaup.

You will not usually find Ring-necked Ducks in salty water.  Greater Scaups tend to frequent more salty water, and Ring-necked Ducks tend to frequent fresh water ponds, streams, and lakes.  Lesser Scaups are usually in fresh water lakes and streams, and estuaries.  Still, once you become familiar with the three species, you should have no trouble differentiating them.

The male Greater Scaup's rounded head has green or purplish iridescence when the light hits it just right. Note the tiny bit of black on the tip of the bill--much less than the Ring-necked male.

Remember, both the Greater and Lesser Scaup drakes have finely patterned black-and-white backs and have a bit of black on the tip of the bill.  The Ring-necked male's bill tip is completely black.  Male Ring-necked Ducks have a white ring just above the tip of their bill.  The Ring-necked Duck has white on its sides that ends in a distinctive hook near the shoulder.   Scaups have none of these field marks.

Male Lesser Scaup from Wiki Commons--photographer,  BS Thurner Hof.

Differentiating species from the Ring-necked Duck 


Ringe-necked Duck female. Note the peaked, brown head, lighter cheeks, and brown eyes.

The female Ringed-necked Duck also has a distinct, white ring around the bill just below the tip.  Her bill is dark.  She also has a peaked head with the highest point behind the eye.  Her cheeks are lighter than the top of her head and there is a bit of white around the eyes.   Her eyes are brown.  The Greater Scaup female has yellow eyes, and her rounded head is uniformly brown, not two-toned like the Ringed-neck Duck.   The lesser has

Female with male Redhead.  Not the head does not have the very pointed look of the Ring-neck.

The biggest challenge will be the female Redhead who has a similar color, a white eye ring, and has a black-tipped bill with a white ring just before the tip of the bill.  Depending on the lighting and the particular duck, the females can vary in appearance.


Male and female Redheads

The coloring in this lighting is very similar.  Note that the Redhead females lacks the white belly of the Ring-necked Duck female, and the slope of the head is off.  This female duck has a short forehead.   The female Ring-necked duck has a peak that reaches its highest point in back of the eye so that the majority of peak rises in the front of the head rather than the forehead rising briefly with the major slope in the back of the head.  The Ring-necked Duck has a long forehead.

Female Redhead--note the rounded head and lack of white around the base of the bill.

Note the the picture above shows a rounded head rather than peaked because the rise of the forehead reaches its peak sooner than the Ring-necked.  The slope is at the back of the head, not the front.  No white breast.  The color is overall brownish and more similar all over than the more varied grayish brown of the Ring-necked Duck female.  You can occasionally see both Redheads and Ring-necked at Irvine Regional Park and other areas in Orange County.  Redheads appear in both fresh water and estuaries.  Both are diving duck, and so their behavior is similar.

Note the peaked head, the white around the base of the bill.
The Ring-necked Duck female has an eye ring, white around the base of the bill.  A darker crest than checks, peaked head, and a white chest that sometimes is not visible because she may be low in the water.  Notice how long the forehead looks because of the peaked head as opposed to the short forehead of the Redhead.

Lesser Scaup hen, photgrapher, Basar.

Neither the Lesser or Greater Scaup hen have the brown eye of the Ring-necked Duck hen.   The Lesser above may be an immature.  The mature hens of both scaup species have yellow eyes and no eye ring.  The brown on their heads is fairly uniform.

Greater Scaup--Wiki Commons photographer, Basar.

As you can see on both hens the amount of white at the base of the bill on the Greater and Lesser Scaup hens is much larger than the Ring-necked Duck hen shown below.  The white extends around the top of the bill in the scaups, but not the Ring-necked hen below.  Also note that the Ring-necked Duck hen as a white ring just before the tip of her bill.  The bill color overall is lighter.

Female Ring-necked Duck.  Notice the white ring near the tip of the bill.

Notice again, the long forehead of the female Ring-necked Duck above.  The white breast is not showing because she is low in the water, but the profile is unmistakable.  The dark crest, the white around the base of the bill--except for the top of the bill, and the white eye ring all point toward the Ring-necked Duck hen.

Lesser Scaup hen.

Orange County Where You May See Ring-Necked Ducks in Fall and Winter

Ring-necked ducks can be found in fresh water.  

The most reliable place with the best view that I know at Irvine Regional Park's upper lake in the fall and winter.   

Large numbers of Ring-necked can be seen regularly in Peter's Regional Park in the reservoir.   However, it is far away, and so the view may not be great.

Occasionally they can be spotted both at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and at Upper Newport Bay.

Sporadically at other locations such as Mile-Square Park, Mason Regional Park, community parks, etc.  All parks--even small community parks with lakes. 

OC Birder Girl Links

The Wild Ducks of Orange County

Photos and and links regarding the Wild Ducks of Orange County. 


Post about the Redhead includes pictures.

External Links

All About Birds form Cornell: Ring-necked Duck

Detailed article from respected Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Range, habits, appearance and comparison with similar diving duck the Lesser and Greater Scaups.

Detailed page included geographic range, discription, food, behavior, conservation status, pictures, sound, and much more.

Good page from Seattle Audubon. Pictures, maps, description, and more.

BioKIDS--Ring-necked Duck

Short article on the Ring-necked Duck.

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