A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


With its long slender neck, chocolate brown head, white breast, unique neck pattern, bluish bill, and pointed tail, the male pintail in breeding plumage is unmistakable. Perhaps the most handsome of the dabbling ducks. Usually one of the earlier arrivals from the north, Pintails begin to show up in Sonoma County in mid-August, with numbers building through the middle of September. Common winter resident in suitable habitat. Most stay through the end of April, with numbers thinning through early June. Usually not present in late June, July and early August, but a few birds may stay over the summer. Perhaps best seen at Shollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, but may be present elsewhere in the county, particularly in south county marshy areas where this bird has nested.

The male Pintail is unlikely to be taken for any other bird. No other duck has a similar neck pattern. The brown head and blue bill combination is also unique. Our only other common blue-billed duck is Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis). While Ruddy Duck's stiff, upturned tail might in side view suggest the Pintail, its rather awkward silhouette with a notably short neck is the antithesis of the elegant, slim-necked Pintail's. The oceangoing Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis, formerly known as the Oldsquaw) has a long, pointed tail, but is otherwise dissimilar. Northern Pintail is one of the largest common ducks we see. Females are mottled brown overall with a scalloped look but with a fairly plain brownish head and greyish to dark bill. Female birds, which share the longish, slender neck of the male, are perhaps best recognized by their shape (photo below).

The challenges of female duck identification (includes a quiz)

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 31

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 44

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 38

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 28

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 30

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 42-43

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 66

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 84

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 43

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 28

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, p. 8

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 38, 100, 148, 151, 152, 153

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 14-15

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 6-7

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 68

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 24

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 46

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 76

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 28

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 52

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Northern Pintail



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Female Northern Pintail, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, January 9, 2012

Northern Pintail

Anas acuta

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 29, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County