It’s Time for Weird Ducks!

Learn where to spot and how to identify our favorite Great Lakes winter waterfowl

Winter has officially become the season of the duck, thanks in part to Rosemary Mosco’s comic about weird winter ducks! Each winter, the Great Lakes is inundated with a great variety of waterfowl (over 30 species!)  as ducks, geese and swans use our region as their winter getaway. Some fowl travel from as far north as the arctic tundra, once their waters freeze over.   

When temperatures drop, many of our Great Lakes’ waterbodies will also freeze. When this happens, waterfowl tend to concentrate in any open water they can find to keep themselves well-fed all season long. If you live near a waterbody that doesn’t completely freeze over, you are likely familiar with the raucous calls and splashing sounds of congregating waterfowl. You might see dabbling ducks bobbing along the water’s surface, tilting their rear ends in the air as they dip forward headfirst in search of seeds, tubers, and rootlets of aquatic plants. Large flocks of geese honking in chorus as they come in for a splash landing. You might also spot diving ducks disappearing and reappearing on the water’s surface as they search for mollusks, aquatic insects and small fish.  

Below we’ve highlighted a few of our favorite Great Lakes fowl that you can see this winter, along with their special quirks (and quacks). 


Ducks often lay their eggs in the nests of others, but the Redhead carries this to the extreme! Females regularly parasitize each others’ nests by laying eggs in them. They also lay eggs in the nests of at least 10 other duck species, as well as non-duck species such as the American Bittern and predatory Northern Harrier!  

How to ID: Look for the cinnamon heads of males and medium-brown bodies of female Redheads as they move and dive in large flocks on the shallower waters of the Great Lakes.  


From a distance, males and females of this dabbling duck appear brown and drab and sometimes can be overlooked. Up close however, the males could dazzle you with their plumage.  

How to ID: Identify the male by his black rump, small white wing patch, and dark bill. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice the intricately patterned feathers on the head, chest and side of this underrated and gorgeous duck. Look for these birds in southern Great Lakes marshes, lakes, and river mouths. 

Tundra Swan 

Tundra Swans usually move in large family groups up to 100 individuals and may fly long distances from the arctic tundra to their preferred wintering grounds. Thanks to their whistle-like call, Tundra Swans have been nicknamed “whistling swans.”  

How to ID: Identify Tundra swans by their very large, white bodies and long necks, with a U-shape where their black bill meets their face. Sometimes a small yellow spot by the eye is visible. Note that the yellow can be difficult to see and is sometimes absent. Look for Tundra Swans on shallow lakes, slow-moving rivers and coastal estuaries (where river mouths meet lakes), especially with agricultural fields nearby.     


Our most diminutive diver, the Bufflehead, is a local favorite. One of our smallest ducks, it has very energetic feeding habits and easily takes flight from the water with rapid wingbeats. Look for these adorable ducks this winter in pairs or small groups on sheltered bays, estuaries, lakes, ponds and slow-moving rivers. 

How to ID: Their name is derived from the male’s odd, puffy-shaped "buffalo head." While females lack the iridescence of males, they have large, rounded heads and an oval white cheek patch.  

Snow Goose 

More common in Illinois and western Indiana, but still seen in southeast Wisconsin, Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and Ohio occasionally each winter, the Snow Goose can be found in small or large groups or not at all! These geese nest in the arctic tundra and can be found in open fields or bodies of water as they forage on foot in the shallows.  

How to ID: The white morph has all white feathers on the head and body with black primaries or wing tips. The blue morph has a dark body and white head. Both color morphs have pink bills with a black patch that looks like a grin.   

To learn more about Great Lakes ducks – specifically those in Michigan -- watch MI Birds’ Winter Waterfowl Identification webinar, presented in partnership with Ducks Unlimited, River Raisin Institute and Detroit Bird Alliance, or visit Audubon Great Lakes’ blog, “Weird and Wonderful Winter Waterfowl.”   


MI Birds is a public outreach and engagement program created by Audubon Great Lakes and Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which aims to increase all Michiganders' engagement in the understanding, care, and stewardship of public lands that are important for birds and people. 

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