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Every week there are new marvels to look for in the outdoors, and Discover Nature highlights these attractions. The Missouri Department of Conservation’s Josh Hartwig brings us the stories of river otters, luna moths, red buds, and other actors as they take center stage in nature’s theater.You can hear Discover Nature, Mondays at 7:42 a.m. and 5:18 p.m.

Discover Nature: Missouri's Diving Ducks

A wood duck.
Missouri Department of Conservation
A wood duck.

Look around the Mississippi flyway this fall, and you may see the greater or lesser scaup ("SKOPP"). Scaups are diving ducks that can fully submerge and swim underwater for food. You will have a greater chance of seeing the lesser scaup, which is a common migrant in Missouri. The greater scaup prefers more coastal areas and is rarely seen in the state.

The lesser scaup prefers freshwater and can be seen in lakes, ponds, and rivers. They are smaller than the greater scaup, with an angular or peaked head with a purple sheen.

To take flight, they flap their wings and run along the surface until they are airborne. They forage underwater for aquatic vegetation and insects, snails, and crayfish. Lesser scaups are one of the most populous diving ducks in the country.

It also helps to know what different species of ducks look like. Here are some quick tips to help you identify them:

  • Mallards, or "greenheads," are Missouri's most common duck. Hens have a loud quack; drakes give a lower-pitched kwek-kwek.
    • Hen: blue speculum bordered with white, mottled brown body and an orange bill
    • Drake: blue speculum bordered with white, iridescent green head, dark-brown breast
  • Northern Pintail: These slender ducks fly fast and often zigzag from great heights before leveling off to land. They may be seen in flocks with mallards. Drakes whistle; hens give a coarse quack.
    • Hen: long, pointed wings
    • Drake: long, slender white neck and a pointed tail
  • American Wigeon: The green eye stripe and white belly and shoulder patch helps identify wigeon drakes. Hens are generally brown. Both sexes have stubby bills and slightly pointed tails.
    • Hen: slightly pointed tail and stubby bill
    • Drake: green eyestripe, white shoulder patch
  • Wood Duck: The drake wood duck is Missouri's most colorful duck. While flying, their wings make a rustling, swishing sound. Drakes call hoo-w-ett, often in flight; hens give a wailing cr-r-ekk when frightened.
    • Drake: long square tail and a blocky head
  • Green-winged Teal: Green-winged teal are North America's smallest duck. Their size, rapid flight, and iridescent-green wing patches help identify these ducks.
    • Drake: small size, iridescent-green speculum
  • Ring-necked Duck (Ringneck): This diver can be confused with scaup and redheads. In flight, the dark wings of ringnecks are different from the white-edged wings of scaup. The bold white ring at the tip of the bill is usually conspicuous.
    • Hen: bold white ring at tip of bill
    • Drake: dark wings without white edges, black head
  • Greater and Lesser Scaup: Except for the wings, greater and lesser scaup appear almost identical in the field. The white band near the trailing edges of the wings runs almost to the wing tip in greater scaup, but only halfway in the lesser. Do not confuse scaup with the similar-looking ring-necked duck.
    • Hen: white at the base of the bill
    • Drake: white-edged wing, black head

Learn more about ducks in Missouri at MissouriConservation.org.

Josh Hartwig is the host of Discover Nature and a media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.