A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Ring-necked Duck would be better named "ring-billed duck," as the white ring on the bill is much more obvious than the dark band at the base of the neck that gives this bird its unfortunate common name. Hunters once called the males "blackjacks"--another name that seems apt. Less common than many of our over-wintering ducks, but not rare either. Favors freshwater marshes, farm ponds, water treatment ponds, and even ponds in parks. Not normally seen in saltwater habitats. Usually starts arriving in mid-October or a little before, but arrivals seem to accelerate in November. The majority will have left again by mid-May. I have seen this bird in Sonoma County most reliably at the Bodega Farm Pond.

Overall, Ring-necked Duck drakes (male birds) have a two-toned look--dark on the head, neck, breast, and back (purple to blue on the head, neck, and breast; browner on the back) with contrasting grey sides. The two-toned look is distinctive and visible at long distance. That and the conspicuous white ring on the bill with white trim at the base of the bill together identify the bird reliably. Look also for the bright yellow-orange eye, and the nearly white vertical spur at the "shoulder." Also distinctive is the somewhat peaked look to the top of the head. If you look at these ducks carefully, you may find one with a tuft dangling at the back of the head--in which case you will have found the closely related Old World species Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)). In addition to the tuft, Tufted Duck differs from Ring-necked Duck in that it lacks the white ring and white at the base of the bill, it lacks the pale spur at the shoulder, and it's even more starkly two-toned than Ring-necked Duck, with very pale grey flanks. While Tufted Duck is quite rare in the area and finding one is unlikely (at most, one or two turn up in Sonoma County or a surrounding County each year), it’s worth checking carefully.

The female Ring-necked Duck is fairly easy to identify as female ducks go. Hens have a white ring on the bill, like the males, but it's somewhat less pronounced. They share the male's peaked head shape, and they also have a rather two-toned look, but, in this case, with a rich dark brown on the back, and paler (more rufous) browns on the flanks, breast, and neck, often warmest at the breast (photo below). Females may have a hint of the pale spur at the shoulder. The cheek is greyish and paler toward the base of the bill, the cap is dark. Perhaps most distinctive, however, is the female's white eyering often with a curved pale line trailing behind, giving the bird an "Egyptian" look. Females may be confused with female Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) or female Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), but the scaup always lack the ring on the bill, the eyering, and the pale line behind the eye. May also suggest female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa), but that bird's distinctive head shape, shaggy crest, and other features should separate the two easily--and Wood Duck is rarely seen in groups or in exposed waters. 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 32

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 46

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 40

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 34

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, p. 46-47

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 76

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 88

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 46

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 32

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 48-50 (general notes on duck ID), p. 47

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 141-159 (general notes on duck ID); pp. 75, 145, 18, 151, 166, 167

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 17-18, 20

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

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pp. 76, 88

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pp. 36, 48

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  pp. 56, 72, 73

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 82

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 34

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 56

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Ring-necked Duck



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

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 Ring-necked Ducks, Lake Ralphine, Santa Rosa, January 10, 2012

Ring-necked Duck

Aythya collaris

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated August 4, 2013

EBird-reported occurrence in Sonoma County

Ring-necked Ducks (male and female pair), Golden Gate Park (San Francisco County), March 17, 2012