Hidden Colors Revealed – Birds of an Unusual Feather

White geese and white and black goose swimming
Ross’s geese at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, including a rare blue goose

One of the beauties of spending time in nature is that there is always something new to notice and appreciate, and the zoom lens of my camera has become a way to look more closely for the visual gems I might have previously missed.

Among the thousands of wintering white geese whose company I seek out every winter are a few that have different coloring—dark bodies and necks instead of being white. While this pattern is officially called a dark morph, I prefer the common term of blue goose. I’ve been lucky to spot a few over the years.

Group of white geese in water with one black and white goose
This photo includes both species of white geese. The snow goose is the larger bird with a thick black “smile” on the beak while the Ross’s has a shorter neck and a smaller pink bill. The blue goose pictured is a Ross’s.

Although I can never see too many birds, with my camera in hand I’ve learned it is possible to take too many photos of them. With dozens of similar images of the same species, I decided I didn’t want to sit at my computer and sort through dozens more that aren’t particularly distinctive. For example, seeing northern pintails inspires awe every single time because they are stunning, but I already have quite a collection of pintail photos, including a previous blog post about them.

So I was surprised that when I was looking at yet another beautiful pintail preening, he revealed bright green and orange feathers on his wing that I had never noticed. That was definitely worth a new photo.

Brown and white duck using beak to preen
Northern pintail, Colusa National Wildlife Refuge
Brown and white duck with blue and black beak
Another image of the northern pintail at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

In addition to the cinnamon teal drake’s color of his feathers, he has red eyes. Like many duck species, the female has less flashy coloring for camouflage when nesting. It was only when looking closely at my photos that I realized that even her eyes are adapted to blend in. Unlike the striking crimson of her mate, hers are black.

Male and female brown ducks standing in water
Cinnamon teal couple, Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District wildlife ponds

I had observed cinnamon teals many times before I noticed the drake’s bright blue feathers that were revealed when he was preening.

Brown duck with blue feathers preening
Cinnamon teal, Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District

The green on the head of the green-winged teal is more obvious than what that species is named for, unless the duck is in the right position to see it.

Brown and green duck standing and preening
Green-winged teal, Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District wildlife ponds

I was staring at a group of green-winged teals when another birder pointed out one individual that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. She showed me the Eurasian green-winged teal that was swimming with the others, a subspecies I had never heard of.

The Eurasian duck has a white outline around the green cheek patch and instead of having a vertical white stripe on his shoulder like the other teal, he has a less visible horizontal stripe on his lower wing.

Green and brown duck swimming
Eurasian green-winged teal, Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District wildlife ponds

Part of what keeps me returning over and over to familiar places, and watching birds I’ve seen before, is that I know I will have a different experience every time. Inevitably, nature offers unexpected moments of wonder, and I don’t want to miss them.


  1. Thanks for sharing! Loved reading about the beautiful photos and explanations of the coloration on the different species. There’s a link that seems to be missing, though. Happy New Year to you!

  2. The subtle and maybe not so subtle differences in the species you photograph and describe are fascinating. Your excitement is contagious. In the past, I had been largely unaware of such diversity. Thank you for opening my eyes!

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