Identifying Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal

Identifying Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal
Blue-winged teal, female. December in Orange County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

Duck migration is a feature of early spring. In much of North America, ducks are on the move in March or even February. One of the last species to migrate is the Blue-winged Teal, a small and elegant freshwater swamp dabbling. When the Blue Wings arrive, it’s a sure sign that winter is over.

Until recently, all dabbling ducks on this continent were classified in a single genus, Anas. In a taxonomic reshuffle in 2016, several were moved to other genera. The Blue-winged Teal, along with the Cinnamon Teal and Cinnamon Shoveler, are now part of the genus. Spatula(easy to remember if you think of the shoveler’s bill). All three have a large pale blue patch on each wing, usually hidden except in flight.

Unlike the scientific name, the word “teal” has no taxonomic meaning; it is applied to various unrelated ducks around the world. The Green-winged Teal is not a close relative of the Blue-winged Teal, but the females of the two species are similar. The greenwing has a slightly more compact shape, with a shorter body and smaller head, and a smaller beak. The green-winged female has a lighter face than the blue-winged female, with a visible dark eye line but usually no obvious paler areas. The bird appears dark, except for a conspicuous pale patch – creamy yellow or buff – on the undertail lateral coverts, appearing as pale “taillights” when swimming or standing.

A Western specialty, Cinnamon Teal, is more closely related to Blue Wing. Males are distinctive most seasons, but females can be very difficult to separate. The female Cinnamon is a slightly warmer shade of brown, and the edges of her body feathers feature a slightly less contrasting contrast on average. Its face is often noticeably paler, with less contrast to the dark eye line, pale broken eyering, and pale area near the base of the beak. The bill itself is slightly longer and wider in the Cinnamon Teal than in the Blue-winged Teal. These differences are all subtle, but their combination is usually enough to establish a business identification.

The males of these teal species are easy to distinguish for most of the year. But like other ducks, they wear “eclipse plumage” in late summer. They moult into a very dull overall plumage before they moult their wing feathers; later their head and body feathers moult again, and the males adopt the brilliant patterns we see in winter and spring. Many ducks molt out of eclipse plumage before the southward migration, but the Blue-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal may migrate south in early fall, with many males still in drab-like plumage. that of a female, making them easy to overlook and harder to identify. Beak shape is always helpful, and some of the differences in female face patterns also apply to eclipse plumage males. On closer inspection, the adult male Cinnamon Teal displays red eyes, a clear distinction from the Blue-winged Teal.


What to look for

The size and the shape. One of the smallest dabbling ducks, but not as small as some species.

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Wing model. In flight, shows a large pale blue patch on the inner part of the leading edge of the wing. This is usually hidden at rest.

Female face model. Combination of a dark line across the eye, a broken whitish eyering, and a large diffuse pale area near the base of the beak.

Female body plumage. Regularly marked with pale edges on the dark brown or grey-brown feathers. The undertail-coverts lack the unmarked pale patch seen in the female Green-winged Teal.

Blue-winged Teal, adult male, March in San Diego County, California

Even without the blue on the wing, momentarily visible under the scapulars in this shot, one would recognize this Blue-winged Teal male by the white crescent on his gray face and another white patch on his flanks. Like many male ducks, he can be identified at a glance. But to hone your identification skills, it’s worth taking the time to study such a bird in the field, picking up the details of its shape and behavior. Building that kind of familiarity with the male Blue-winged Teal will help you identify the more subtle females. This will also help recognize males in the fall: many migrate south in September while still mostly in the dull “eclipse” plumage, as described above.

Cinnamon teal, female and male, January in Maricopa County, Arizona

Partly replacing the Blue-winged Teal in the West, the Cinnamon Teal is similar in size and shape, but on average slightly larger. Its beak is subtly longer and wider, a noticeable difference with enough practice. The female wears slightly warmer brown tones than the blue-winged female, and she tends to show a lighter face, with less contrast to the dark eye line and pale patch near the beak. These subtle dots add up to reliable identification in areas where the species is expected, but identifying an out-of-range female cinnamon remains tricky. A male Cinnamon Teal with dull “eclipse” early fall plumage can still be identified by his overall warm tones and red eyes.

Blue-winged teal, female, January in Galveston County, Texas

In mid-winter, the Blue-winged Teal is found primarily in our southernmost states and south of the border. The Green-winged Teal seems to be much more cold hardy; they winter further north and in much greater numbers, and move north earlier in the spring. To identify a wintering Blue-winged Teal or an early female, do not rely on the color of the wing, as it is usually hidden except in flight. And don’t settle for identification by association with a man. The general shape, shape of the beak and pattern of the face are all good ground marks, with paler markings on the face of the blue-winged female. For a diagnostic difference from the green-winged female, check the pattern of the undertail coverts.

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Green-winged teal, female, January in Orange County, California

Although the Green-winged Teal is our smallest dabbling duck, it is only slightly smaller than the Blue-winged Teal and the difference is not striking even when they are together. The shape is a better clue, as the greenwing looks more compact overall, with a shorter beak and smaller head. It usually has a darker, lighter face, lacking the off-white eyering and the pale patch near the base of the bill, which helps to make the bird appear darker brown overall. A consistent mark is the creamy-white or yellowish patch on the undertail-coverts, appearing as a pale “taillight”, quite obvious if we look for it. The male Green-winged Teal shows a yellow patch in the same area.

Long distance duck

Generally, ducks do not migrate long distances. This may not be obvious if we only look at them from a North American perspective, as many ducks migrate from Alaska or Canada to southern states for the winter. But if we look at the entire western hemisphere, we find that many smaller birds migrate much farther. High Arctic sandpipers and plovers can fly to the southern tip of South America. Warblers, thrushes and vireos from the Canadian boreal forest may travel to Central America or the Amazon Basin. In contrast, very few northern ducks extend far beyond the southern border of the United States.

The Blue-winged Teal is a major exception to this rule. Good numbers may stay over winter in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, but the majority fly further south. Large flocks can be found wintering in the coastal lowlands of Mexico and Central America. Others spend the season in the wetlands of the Caribbean and northern South America, with flocks as far south as Peru and wandering flocks reaching southern Argentina. Birdwatchers on pelagic voyages off the Atlantic coast of North America sometimes spot flocks of blue-winged teal migrating far out to sea, in rapid, direct flight to or from wintering grounds far to the east. south. Outside of the Americas, the species has repeatedly wandered into Europe and even reached Africa.