Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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Bluebills, broadbills, ringbills

Contributing Writer

Minnesota hunters take three diving ducks that often are called
bluebills, broadbills and ringbills. Waterfowlers often lump them
together. Their proper names are lesser scaup, greater scaup, and
ringnecks. State hunters took 34,000 lesser scaup in 2003.

It may surprise many hunters to learn that last year Minnesotans
took 72,000 ringnecks, twice the number of lesser scaup. Whatever
is causing the drop in lesser scaup numbers is not affecting the
relatively stable numbers of ringnecks.

Perhaps equally surprising, the ringneck is Minnesota’s fourth
most common nesting duck behind the mallard, blue-winged teal and
wood duck. We don’t see hens with ducklings often because most nest
in the small wooded lakes in the northern part of the state,
although a few nest south to the Minnesota River. Like buffleheads,
which also nest on smaller bodies of water, the ringneck does not
need the fairly long run across the water needed to lift off the
water that most diving ducks require.

Both scaup nest primarily in the West. Greater scaup nest in the
north from Alaska east to Hudson Bay. Lesser scaup nest from Alaska
east to southwestern Hudson Bay, south into the western United
States. A few nest in extreme northwestern Minnesota. Ringnecks
nest from southeastern Alaska, across southern Canada to the
Atlantic, south into Maine, west to North Dakota, and in the
northwestern U.S. south to Oregon. Nesting ringnecks are most
common in

Minnesota, Ontario, and

Manitoba. Hunters in eastern Minnesota take most of the state

Very few greater scaup, about 1,000 birds, are shot in
Minnesota. Hunters talk about “the really big bills” they take late
in the season, but biologists say they actually are lesser scaup in
full plumage, and fully grown young of the year. I’ve seen mixed
flocks of both lesser and greater on Chesapeake Bay, and the green
in the drakes’ heads is fairly obvious. Their bills also are wider
(Eastern hunters call them “broadbills”), and they weigh about a
half-pound more than lesser scaup. However, unless the two species
are side by side, they can be very hard to tell apart.

Ringnecks closely resemble scaup. Hens of all three species are
brown. Drake ringnecks have very dark, purplish heads, black
breasts, and black rumps and backs. They also have very distinctive
white rings near the tip of the bill and a thinner ring at the base
of the bill that gives them their common name.

Ringneck is a very poor name. The maroon ring at the base of the
neck is very hard to see unless you are looking at a drake in good
light and in full breeding plumage. Hens have a single ring near
the tip of the bill. Other than the rings, the best ways to tell
ringbills from lesser scaup is the ringbills’ dark speculum (the
blue wing patch on mallards) that is white on both greater and
lesser scaup. Hen ringbills have a white eye ring that scaup do not
have. In full plumage, drake ringbills have gray sides with a white
vertical crescent immediately behind the black breast. Full plumage
male scaup have white sides, no crescents.

All three of these ducks return north early in spring, and are
among the last ducks to head south. Nearly all greater scaup winter
in coastal ocean bays, primarily on the Atlantic Coast. Lesser
scaup and ringnecks winter across the southern United States, with
especially large numbers of ringnecks in Florida. Scaup and
ringnecks readily decoy, especially after completing a long
migration flight.

Loose flock after flock of all three coming from the north often
are the birds of the famous “northern flight,” when late-season
ducks suddenly are all over a lake, and hunters limit-out in 10
minutes. I have seen scaup come into decoys when someone was in the
decoys in a boat. And, I once shot two ringnecks out of a flock of
about 10, watched the remaining birds swing around the lake, then
decoy into the bodies of their downed buddies.

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