South Carolina is known for its great food, beautiful natural scenery, and popular beaches.
If you find yourself on the water, you’re likely to see ducks, as South Carolina is home to many varieties of waterfowl. More than 20 kinds of ducks join the ranks of South Carolina’s most interesting birds.
Identifying ducks is a rewarding experience for many birders. For beginning birders, there are plenty of ducks that are easy to identify, like the Mallard or the Wood Duck.
For more experienced birders, there are always new challenges, like differentiating between females who look quite similar to each other or spotting duck hybrids created by interbreeding of different species.
You can learn to differentiate between ducks by paying attention to their appearance, migration habits, sounds and vocalizations, and unique behaviors.
We’ve put this list together to help you figure out which ducks to look out for in South Carolina–and how to tell them apart! Let’s look at the ducks you might spot here in the Palmetto State.
South Carolina: Home to Both Dabbling Ducks and Diving Ducks
North America has two categories of ducks: dabbling ducks and diving ducks (also called sea ducks).
Have you ever looked over the water and spotted a little duck tail sticking into the air while the duck’s head was under the water? If so, you just saw a dabbling duck.
These little guys stick their heads underwater to reach their food on the riverbed, lakebed, or bottom of the pond. They prefer shallow water. Their diet comprises aquatic plants, insect larvae, fully grown insects, crustaceans, and small fish.
If you see a duck dive entirely under the surface and disappear, that’s a diving duck. These ducks are more comfortable in deeper water than dabbling ducks, often diving between 10 and 65 feet.
Diving ducks live and feed on lakes, rivers, inlets, bays, and other deep water bodies. Because South Carolina is home to both kinds of ducks, our list identifies each duck as a dabbling or diving duck.
In alphabetical order, here are the ducks in South Carolina!
American Black Duck (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Anas rubripes
- Length: 21.3-23.2 inches
- Weight: 25.4-57.9 ounces
- Wingspan: 34.6-37.4 inches
American Black Ducks are very dark brown. They are so dark you may think they’re black. Males have lighter brown heads and yellowish-green bills. Females look similar, but their whole body is lighter in color, and the female’s bill is less yellow and more like olive green.
One of the flashy things that both males and females have in common is a beautiful purplish-blue speculum, which is hardly visible unless the bird is in flight.
These ducks don’t venture anywhere outside of the eastern half of North America. Specifically, they breed in Canada and migrate into the southeastern US for the winter. Some of them are year-round residents in New England.
You will only encounter American Black Ducks in South Carolina during winter. They can be found in saltwater and freshwater bodies.
American Wigeon (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Mareca americana
- Length: Up to 14 inches
- Weight: About 2.25 pounds
- Wingspan: 34 inches
The American Wigeon is a compact little duck. Males are easier to recognize than females. They have an iridescent green band from their eyes to the back of their heads and a thick, bright white crown. Females are brown-bodied with gray heads.
Males and females have the same blueish-gray bill with a black tip at the end, which they use to rip aquatic plants from the bottom of the water.
These medium-sized ducks are only found in the coastal waters of South Carolina. You’re unlikely to see them west of I-95. You’ll find them In the eastern half of the state from August to April. In addition to nesting along waterways, you’ll also find them eating the grasses of lawns and natural grasslands.
Black-Bellied Whistling Duck (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Dendrocygna autumnalis
- Length: 19-22 inches
- Weight: 1.4-2.2 pounds
- Wingspan: 30-37 inches
What an interesting duck this is! The Black-Bellied Whistling Duck is sexually monomorphic, meaning that males and females look pretty much the same.
Males and females are cinnamon brown with a dark pink bill. In flight, a large white stripe runs down the middle of their wings. They have gray faces and black bellies, which explains their name! Their name also reflects the shrill whistling sound they make.
They are not common in the state yet, but according to South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, they are expanding their territory. Some groups of Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks are finding their way to South Carolina’s beaches and ocean waterways.
Blue-Winged Teal (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Anas discors
- Length: 16 inches
- Weight: 13 ounces
- Wingspan: 23 inches
The Blue-Winged Teal Duck spends the winter along the Atlantic coast of North America, including South Carolina.
Like several other ducks in South Carolina, male Blue-Winged Teal Ducks have a different appearance during the breeding season than the rest of the year. In summer, they are mostly brown, with a speckled breast and a blueish-gray head. Near his tail is a white patch, and a white stripe runs down his face, starting at his eye.
Females, juveniles, and non-breeding males are lighter than breeding males. They have plain brown bodies and a blue wing patch that is only visible while they are in flight.
South Carolina’s coastal marshes and lakes are great habitats for wintering Blue-Winged Teal Ducks, who feel safest when there are plenty of tall grasses for protection and nesting.
Bufflehead (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name: Bucephala albeola
- Length: 13-16 inches
- Weight: 11-16 ounces
- Wingspan: 22 inches
Buffleheads get their name from their big, fluffy heads. It is short for “buffalo head.” Because this duck’s body is so small, its big head is even more noteworthy.
As the smallest diving ducks in North America, Buffleheads spend the winter in much of the US. They can be found in shallow ponds and lakes, slow-moving rivers, and well-protected bays in South Carolina. They nest in the abandoned cavities of other birds, including Northern Flickers.
Males are white-bodied, with black backs and iridescent heads that shimmer in both green and purple. He also has a large white patch on the back of his head.
Females and juvenile males are plain, brownish-gray. They have a large, oval-shaped cheek patch.
Canvasback (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name: Aythya valisineria
- Length: 13-16 inches
- Weight: Up to 2.5 pounds
- Wingspan: Up to 3 feet
Canvasbacks have thick necks and big heads. Their bills are long. Males are tri-colored in black, white, and chestnut brown. Females have the same color patterns, but just slightly lighter in color.
Males and females have very different eyes: males’ eyes are red, and females’ eyes are black.
Canvasback ducks are also very fast. They can fly up to 30 miles and are faster than the average duck, clocking in at around 72 miles per hour.
Not all ducks practice brood parasitism, but it’s not a rare trait among ducks. Canvasbacks participate in this behavior, which involves females laying their eggs in other birds’ nests.
Most of the time, Canvasbacks will lay their eggs in the nests of other Canvasbacks, so the babies are indistinguishable from any others that the mother bird hatched. However, Canvasbacks will also raise the hatchlings of Ruddy Ducks and Redhead Ducks who lay eggs in their nests!
Canvasbacks are only found in South Carolina during the winter. They also stay along the east coast, never staying long in the western part of the state.
Common Goldeneye (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name: Bucephala clangula
- Length: 16-20 inches
- Weight: Approximately 1.8 pounds
- Wingspan: 30.3-32.7 inches
It’s always nice when a bird’s name so closely matches their physical characteristics. The Common Goldeneye is one such bird!
Goldeneye Ducks have bright yellow eyes, visible from pretty far away. Males and females alike have these shiny golden eyes, but otherwise, the sexes look different from one another.
The green feathers of a male Goldeneye are so dark that they are commonly perceived as black and white instead of green and white. Females are gray and have brown heads. Both males and females have white patches on their wings.
Goldeneyes can be found throughout South Carolina in the winter. Unlike the last few ducks in our list, they don’t limit themselves to the eastern edge of the state.
Their ability to dive deep under the water makes large lakes, deep rivers, and coastal waters an attractive place for them to call home.
They nest quite high up in tree cavities. Sometimes, they may be 40 feet above the ground, which is a big hurdle for their babies to overcome when it’s time to leave the nest.
How long do baby Goldeneyes get to stay in the nest? No more than a single day! Their mother sits at the bottom of the tree and calls to them, and, one by one, they drop out of the cavity and join their mother on the ground.
Gadwall (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Mareca strepera
- Length: 18.1-22.4 inches
- Weight: 17.6-44.1 ounces
- Wingspan: 33.1 inches
Gadwall Ducks don’t go as deep underwater as diving ducks, but they dive a bit deeper than most other dabbling ducks.
They have somewhat square-shaped heads with thin bills and necks. They aren’t very colorful, regardless of sex. Males have gray and green bodies, whereas females are off-white and light brown. They each have a white wing patch, typically visible while swimming.
Gadwall live in the marshes and estuaries of South Carolina. Because they are so good at camouflage, they are difficult to spot among the cattails and tall grasses.
If you’re trying to identify Gadwall by behavior, watch for them to demonstrate their sneaky habit of stealing food from other ducks! They live in the same habitats as many diving ducks, and this gives them the perfect opportunity to steal food.
As the diving ducks surface with their food, a Gadwall duck will swoop in and steal their food away from them!
Greater Scaup (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name: Aythya marila
- Length: 15-22 inches
- Weight: 1.5-2.9 pounds
- Wingspan: 28-33 inches
Greater Scaup are also called Bluebills for pretty obvious reasons. Males have a slate-blue bill, and females have a hint of blue to their much darker bill.
Females have light brown bodies and dark brown heads. Breeding-season males have dark green feathers. Females, juveniles, and non-breeding males are gray and brown-bodied with heads that are almost black.
You’re most likely to see Greater Scaup in the winter, but they are not commonly spotted in South Carolina. If you’re lucky, you’ll see them along the coastal waterways.
Green-Winged Teal (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Anas carolinensis
- Length: 12.2-15.3 inches
- Weight: 4.9-17.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 20.5-23.2 inches
These are dramatic-looking ducks! Male Green-Winged Teal Ducks have a shimmering green stripe that runs from their eyes to the back of their heads, which are copper-colored. Females are less flashy, as they are lightly barred in brown and light brown.
Males and females alike share an iridescent green speculum, which is what we call the colorful patch on a duck’s secondary feathers. The speculum can be seen in flight, but is only sometimes visible when the duck is swimming or standing.
Green-Winged Teal Ducks are North America’s smallest dabbling duck. Watch for them in flooded agricultural fields and river deltas throughout South Carolina in the wintertime.
Hooded Merganser (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name: Lophodytes cucullatus
- Length: 15.8-19.3 inches
- Weight: 16-31 ounces
- Wingspan: 23.6-25 inches
Some ducks are far easier to identify than others. Hooded Mergansers are one of the easy ones!
Both male and female Hooded Mergansers have big, attention-capturing crests. The male’s crest is black and white, as are his breast and back. His wings are brown. The female’s crest is cinnamon-brown, and her body is light to dark brown.
One interesting fact about Hooded Mergansers is that they have an extra transparent eyelid called a nicitating membrane. This operates like a pair of goggles, providing clear vision while protecting the duck’s eyes.
Hooded Merganswers live year-round in South Carolina. They nest in abandoned cavities and spend the winter in freshwater or saltwater.
Lesser Scaup (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name: Aythya affinis
- Length: 15.3-18.1 inches
- Weight: 16-38.4 ounces
- Wingspan: 26.8-30.7 inches
The Greater Scaup and the Lesser Scaup have a lot in common, but with a careful eye, you can spot some of the subtle differences between them.
For example, the Lesser Scaup has an egg-shaped head compared to the rounder head of the Greater Scaup. Other aspects of their appearance are quite similar.
Males of both varieties are often perceived as black and white when they are actually dark green or purple and white. The female Greater Scaup looks similar to the female Lesser Scaup. They have the same color patterns as their respective males, but their bodies are light brown and their heads are dark brown.
Lesser Scaup travels through western South Carolina during their migration periods and settle for the winter in the eastern half of the state. They spend the winter months in freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds. This is another difference between Lesser and Greater Scaup; Greater Scaup prefer to spend the winter in seawater habitats.
Mallard (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Anas platyrhynchos
- Length: 20-26 inches
- Weight: 1.5-3.5 pounds
- Wingspan: 32-39 inches
The Mallard may be the most iconic duck in North America! They are incredibly recognizable, and they can be seen in plenty of home decor items, as well as art and jewelry.
The majority of domesticated ducks in North America trace their ancestry to Mallards. This is a result of the the Mallard’s tendency to breed with the other ducks that share their habitat. In fact, Mallards and Mottled Ducks have interbred so frequently that Florida is home to a special hybrid called the “Muttled Duck.”
The iconic appearance of a male Mallard includes a dark, iridescent green head and a bright white ring around his neck. Females are mottled in dark brown and cream.
Although they are often described as a North American duck, Mallards actually live all over the world. They are found in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
In South Carolina, any Mallards you spot in the winter have migrated from Canada.
Mallards are commonly found throughout South Carolina. Basically, wherever there are wetlands in South Carolina, you will likely find Mallards in the winter. That includes areas like Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, as well as the Broad River, Saluda River, and Edisto River.
They also inhabit areas like beaver ponds, city parks, farms, marshes, and ditches.
Mottled Duck (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Anas fulvigula
- Length: 18.5-21 inches
- Weight: 24.7-40.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 31.5-34.3 inches
Mottled Ducks usually limit their territory to Florida and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. South Carolina is as far north as they go along the Atlantic coast, and they live here year-round. Very few Mottled Ducks migrate, and if they do, they don’t go far.
Male and female Mottled Ducks look quite similar to one another. Males and females have streaked feathers all over their bodies, which range from light brown to dark brown. All Mottled Ducks have yellow bills.
The female’s coloring is slightly less vibrant, sometimes appearing more greenish-yellow than brown.
In winter, Mottled Ducks prefer freshwater. They like rivers, ditches, marshes, retaining ponds, reservoirs, and agricultural fields.
Northern Pintail (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Anas acuta
- Length: 20-30 inches
- Weight: 1-3 pounds
- Wingspan: 20-30 inches
Northern Pintails are long-distance migrants that fly from Canada to South Carolina to spend the winter. They have a steady pace of up to 48 miles per hour; they are not the fastest ducks, but they definitely aren’t slow!
They get their name from the breeding season male’s thin, pointy tail. This is pretty rare in North American ducks, and during the rest of the year, the male has a more traditional duck-shaped silhouette. Females and juveniles never develop this “pintail.”
Males and females have a speculum on their secondary flight feathers. The male’s speculum is iridescent green, and the female’s speculum is shiny, metallic brown. Other than this flash of color, females are quite plain. A female Northern Pintail barely has any patterns or markings on her light brown face.
The Seneca, Clemson, and Grenville areas of South Carolina will only see Northern Pintails as they migrate, but the rest of the state may spot them along most bodies of water, as well as in farmland.
Northern Shoveler (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Spatula clypeata
- Length: 19 inches
- Weight: 1.3 pounds
- Wingspan: 30 inches
Northern Shovelers are found in North America, Europe, Africa, and India. In South Carolina, they prefer coastal waters, marshes, lakes, wetlands, and lagoons. They nest in tall grasses, which provides them with excellent camouflage.
If you do spot a Northern Shoveler, look for its large, broad, and shovel-shaped bill. In breeding season, males are white, metallic green, iridescent brown, and light blue, with a blue speculum on their wings.
After the breeding season, non-breeding males start to look like females and juvenile males. They have a mottled appearance in cream and dark brown, with a blue hue to their wings. Females have a bright orange bill.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the Northern Shoveler is the defense mechanism that the females have developed to protect their eggs. If they’re frightened away from the nest by a predator, females will defecate all over the nest, including the eggs.
This is all about creating an inhospitable environment for predators, who will hopefully turn around when they encounter such a mess.
Red-Breasted Merganser (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name:Mergus serrator
- Length: 20-24 inches
- Weight: 2.3 pounds
- Wingspan: 28-34 inches
Red-Breasted Mergansers are unlike most of the other ducks on this list, thanks to their long, shaggy head feathers.
The female’s head is light brown. The male’s is greenish-black. Males have a cinnamon-brown chest and a thick white band around their necks, which females and juvenile males lack.
Unfortunately, South Carolinians won’t have too many opportunities to see Red-Breasted Mergansers. Some live along the edge of the coast during the winter but spend little time in the rest of the state. The best time to see them is when they are migrating to their breeding grounds in Canada.
Watch for them to migrate in small groups in the spring and huge flocks in the winter. Some migrating flocks will number in the thousands!
Even though Red-Breasted Mergansers seem to prefer saltwater, they will nest and feed along freshwater sources if that is what is available to them.
Redhead (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name: Aythya americana
- Length: 18-22 inches
- Weight: 2-2.5 pounds
- Wingspan: 33 inches
This is another duck that most birders can spot and identify quickly. Even from a distance, you can see the unique traits of the Redhead Duck. This can be a great duck to teach kids to recognize after they learn to spot the Mallard or Wood Duck.
Male Redhead Ducks have dark, cinnamon-brown heads visible from quite far away. Their breast is black.
Females, on the other hand, have minimal markings. The female’s body is plain and light brown. Both males and females have rounded heads and gray flight feathers.
Their preferred habitat is made up of dense grasses where they can nest and hide. As diving ducks, they also prefer deeper water. You’re less likely to encounter them in an agricultural puddle or shallow marsh, and more likely to find them in a slow-moving river or lake.
Ring-Necked Duck (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name: Aythya collaris
- Length: 15.3-18.1 inches
- Weight: 17.3-32.1 ounces
- Wingspan: 24.4-24.8 inches
Judging by the name, you would think that the Ring-Necked Duck has an obvious ring around its neck.
However, the Ring-Necked Duck was originally described by biologists and naturalists in the 1800s who only had dead specimens to examine. When looking at a Ring-Necked Duck carcass, the dark copper ring around his neck seems quite noticeable–noticeable enough to earn its name!
However, when the duck is alive and swimming, eating, nesting, or flying, that copper ring is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the duck’s body.
There is a totally different ring you can look for when identifying the Ring-Necked Duck, though! Look for an all-white ring around the base of its bill. It may not be the neck, but it’s at least something!
Additionally, Ring-Necked Ducks have downward-sloping foreheads and small crowns.
Most diving ducks prefer deep water, but Ring-Necked Ducks don’t like to dive very deep. They have a preference for shallower waters, like ponds and marshes.
These ducks begin to arrive in South Carolina around late September, as they migrate from Canada. They can arrive as late as December. They will stay put until it’s time to return to their breeding territory, usually between February and March.
Ruddy Duck (Diving Duck)
- Scientific Name: Oxyura jamaicensis
- Length: 13.5-17 inches
- Weight: 1.23 pounds
- Wingspan: 18.5 inches
The Ruddy Duck’s most identifiable feature, its vibrant blue bill, is only colorful in the summer. Non-breeding season Ruddy Ducks are a bit harder to recognize. Unfortunately for South Carolinians, Ruddy Ducks are only present in the state during the winter non-breeding season!
Watch for a black bill, a big white cheek, and a dark black head. Females and juvenile males have light brown bodies and a dark crown.
Another feature of the breeding male is the long, pointed tail that he sports during the summer. In the fall, he loses the pointed tail and takes on a more traditional duck shape. In the water, this duck tail operates as a rudder.
Ruddy Ducks migrate into South Carolina in the fall and spend the winter along the east coast. They are not typically present in the western half of the state, except during their spring and fall migration periods.
Wood Duck (Dabbling Duck)
- Scientific Name: Aix sponsa
- Length: 17-20 inches
- Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Wingspan: 28 inches
The dramatic and regal Wood Duck is one of the easiest ducks to recognize. The male has a dark green head with a metallic sheen. He also has white stripes along his cheeks and the back of his head.
His chestut-brown breast is dotted with small white spots. Females have similar spotting, but they are a lighter grayish-brown.
Males lose their colorful feathers at the end of the breeding season. In the winter, their appearance is more muted, with brownish-gray feathers. The one thing that doesn’t change is his bright, multi-colored bill.
Wood Ducks stay in South Carolina all year round. They can be found in wetlands like marshes, swamps, and shallow rivers. Basically, if there are cattails growing, there could very well be Wood Ducks nearby! They don’t nest in the cattails because they are cavity-nesters, but the aquatic plants do offer them shelter as they forage for food.
South Carolina has so many birds to look for, listen for, and identify. There are always new birds to spot here, including more than 20 species of ducks.
Although many of South Carolina’s ducks are merely winter inhabitants, there are also several year-round residents. By paying attention to their coloring, feather patterns, nesting behaviors, sounds, and diet, it’s usually possible to differentiate between the state’s many different kinds of ducks.
While you’re duck-watching in South Carolina, don’t forget to keep track of what you see! You could be camping, hunting, commuting, going on a walk, or just watching the birds in your yard. You never know when you’ll see a fascinating duck in the nearby waters!