Washington’s best ducks


Are Washington’s forests filled with toucans, parrots, and cockatoos? Not exactly. You’re more likely to find a crow, or if you’re lucky you might come across an owl or eagle. For me, the real wonders of Pacific Northwest avian life can be found in the waters of Puget Sound and surrounding lakes, rivers, and sloughs. Ever since I was little I’ve been an avid kayaker and as such I’ve appointed myself an expert on ducks in our area. From ducks I’ve seen in the Sammamish Slough to those out in the San Juans, here are the best ducks (in my opinion).

1. The Bufflehead

Female and male Buffleheads via Wikimedia Commons

Oh, the Bufflehead. What can I say about this little wonder. Buffleheads are migratory birds, so you’re most likely to see them in fall through winter. Ever since November I have spotted dozens of Buffleheads in every place I’ve kayaked. Whether fresh or saltwater, these ducks have only been outnumbered by Mallards and sometimes the Common Merganser. I’d say this little guy is one of the most distinct PNW ducks (if you research ducks in the area, most look like off-brand Mallards). Both the female and male are very small compared to your average duck and have black-and-white coloring. The male is most distinct, and if you get close enough you can see that he actually has a very iridescent neck with many colors, but most of the time he will appear to just be black and white. The female simply looks like a duckling to me. She is fluffy, small, and adorable. While she does look a fair bit different from her male counterpart, these ducks are generally found in pairs so it is easy to determine that you are seeing a couple of Buffleheads. Looking to spot these guys? The window is closing, but the Slough is always a fantastic place to look. As Washington is their “warm” winter abode (yep- this is where they go to get away from the cold) they will likely be moving on soon back up to Canada. You can also find Buffleheads at Woodland Park Zoo! In one of the waterfowl enclosures there are often Buffleheads, and they are there year-round. Never has a Bufflehead failed to put a smile on my face, which is why it deserves your attention and the top spot.


2. The Hooded Merganser

Female Hooded Merganser via Wikimedia Commons

When I first saw this duck I told my brother to open up our bird book and find the strangest-looking duck you can. Yeah- this guy is just that weird. Hooded Mergansers are year-round residents of the Sound, but are a tad bit harder to find than Buffleheads. I first saw this duck at Snug Harbor on San Juan Island, and I have only been more excited about a duck the first time I saw a Bufflehead. Honestly, I’m unsure if the picture truly captures just how strange the male’s head looks. The female is certainly an odd one as well, but nothing compares to the oddity that is the male Hooded Merganser. Those weird beady eyes? The huge hood? The colors? This duck perfectly toes the line between a complete freak of nature and a beautiful work of waterfowl art. I cannot give great advice on where to find these ducks, considering I have only found them twice in two different locations- but luckily one of them was the Sammamish Slough! I only saw the female at the time, but I was honestly too busy taking pictures of Buffleheads to look for a male. The Hooded Merganser deserves this high place in both my heart and this list because of my excitement at finding it and the sheer peculiarity of this duck.


3. The Wood Duck

Male and female Wood Duck via Wikimedia Commons

This is one duck that most PNW residents have seen at some point in their lives- the Wood Duck! This duck is simply beautiful and a staple of Washington’s waters. As a year-round resident it is possible to see a Wood Duck any time, and it is always a treat to do so. For me, these ducks bring up nostalgia from my old house where I first saw this duck in the ponds down the street. Now that I see them often, it also evokes memories of kayaking with my family down the Slough. The Slough has been my most successful place in finding Wood Ducks, with greater success in the conjunction of the Sammamish Slough and Lake Washington (near Logboom Park). The Wood Duck is also a success story of conservation, coming from near-extinction about a century ago to a status of “least concern” today! For their beauty, nostalgia, and perseverance it would be a crime to place the Wood Duck anywhere but in my top 5.


4. The Mallard

Male Mallard via Wikimedia Commons
Female Mallard perches on a kayak via Cameron Suraci

The Mallard! Of course I had to put this lovely duck on my list. Sure, we see them all the time- but that just adds to their charm! Mallards are the source of most of the ducklings you’re able to see in the Spring, and what would we do without those little yellow friends? Also, you are guaranteed to see a Mallard all the time, so a kayaking trip will never be without wildlife. Mallards are also fairly comfortable around humans and non-motorized water vehicles so they’re easy to see and take pictures of, while all of the ducks above are much more frightened of humans. And of course we’re fairly used to them, but let’s not forget how pretty they are! The male Mallards especially have beautiful colors, like the green of their heads and the purple on their bodies. Normally I’d tell you where to find them, but as long as you can find water you can find a Mallard duck. All in all, Mallards are just a genuinely solid duck and deserve a spot in my ranks.


5. The Common Merganser

Female and Male Common Merganser via Unsplash Photos

This duck is another one I’ve noticed more and more on my kayaking adventures through the Sammamish Slough. Like the Mallard, this duck is a pretty consistent resident of our waters, and I am always happy to see it! It has beautiful colors on both the female and male, which can be a rarity. Female birds often get the short end of the stick on plumage, but I would argue that the female Common Merganser has an even more unique look than her male counterpart. Either way, both are impressive ducks and are always a pleasure to see- and it’s very easy to spot them! For their beautiful colors, plentiful numbers, and diversity amongst genders this duck easily makes my top 5 as well.