BIRD WATCH: Tiny teal are eye-catching attraction

COMBINE A CLEAR, crisp winter day with an estuary’s quiet backwater, and you can almost always expect to see several green-winged teal.

This smallest of North America’s dabbling ducks is easy to miss if you don’t focus on the reeds and cattails on the wetland’s edges.

Their small size is one reason but a second is the way they paddle in and out of the concealing vegetation.

The larger and more familiar mallards catch your eye first, but it pays to look at everyone in the area.

Green-winged teal are one of the most attractive ducks in North America.

That’s saying a lot because we have so many handsome members in the waterfowl group.

Teal may be tiny but they are also very tough when it comes to surviving the elements. They are among the first to head north in the spring and will be on Alaska breeding grounds in early May.

When you watch these small ducks come paddling out from the concealment of a wetland’s habitat, they have a somewhat preoccupied air about them. Instead of looking around to see what may be happening in the general areas, they poke and dabble on the water’s surface. They’re looking for anything that may be edible.

Seeds from wetland plants and other aquatic life are a main part of their diet. Berries and nuts are also on the menu when in season. Teal found in Alaska have other food in their diet and it’s loaded with protein.

The spawned out salmon found on the banks of Alaska’s rivers become part of this dainty duck’s diet.

There is a look-a-like duck for the green-winged teal. American wigeon are often found feeding in the same areas and the males bear some resemblance to one another.

Wigeon are larger. The male wigeon may have green on its head but the bird’s forehead or “pate” is white. Male green-winged teal have a chestnut-colored head with a large green patch on the side. There is no white on its head.

One of this year’s first winter’s walks yielded several green-winged teal feeding in a local park’s wetland.

They slowly slipped from the concealment of the cattails along the shore and paddled farther out into open water.

Winter sunlight caught the brilliant green on the male ducks’ heads. It highlighted the white vertical patch on their shoulders.

My toes were rapidly growing numb from the cold but the collection of male and female teal was a brief glimpse that promised spring. They were in pairs.

Like those of us who begin wishing for spring on the first day of winter, teal are also looking forward to longer days and the coming of spring.

The males actually begin courting the females in the fall but this activity peaks in January and February.

Once migration begins, bonding activity continues even after the birds arrive at their northern breeding grounds.

Once the female begins nesting, the male returns to bachelor life.

She raises the youngsters that exit the eggs ready to take their first steps.

Most of the teal spending the winter in Western Washington will migrate northward in the spring.

During the winter they are one of the most numerous dabbling ducks found in Washington.

Areas with high counts are Dungeness and Discovery bays on the Olympic Peninsula.

Aerial surveys over northern Puget Sound have recorded in the neighborhood of 10,000 green-winged teal.

The teal will be with us for several weeks and as courting activity picks up, this is a good time to check the local wetlands. Catch one of our rare sunny days and enjoy how handsome these little ducks are when sunshine highlight their intense color.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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