Season of the duck

On Thursday morning past, the tide was ebbing, the seemingly-permanent gale had miraculously eased for a while, and it was time for the fortnightly waterfowl census on the Ythan Estuary. This, as we’ve explained in previous postings, is a way of assessing the health of the estuary, and of the populations of birds who depend upon it.

Because we aim to record the peak number of each species – and because different species reach their peak numbers at different times of the year – we count a different selection of them each month. In autumn, counts tend to be weighted towards waders – many of them Arctic breeders on their way south, using Forvie as a migration stop-over. But now, as we head into winter proper, many of these have continued southwards, and instead the focus changes to those birds who will actually overwinter here. This is the season of the duck.

Nice day for a bird count – for once

Ducks are a diverse group of birds with a wide variety of shapes, sizes, habits and preferences. What they all have in common, of course, is a love of water, whether fresh or salty. Here at Forvie we are blessed with the full suite of duck habitat: the salt water of the North Sea, the fresh water of the lochs, and the brackish, tidal shallows of the Ythan Estuary in between. Consequently there can be few places on the Scottish mainland offering such good opportunities for observing ducks of all persuasions.

A festive selection-box of ducks – Teal, Wigeon and Mallard

Broadly speaking, ducks can be divided into two groups: ‘dabblers’, which are surface-feeders, and ‘divers’, which obtain their food by diving below the surface of the water, rather than upending. Within these groups, each species has its own niche, or specialism, by which it makes its living. In most cases, the females tend to be cryptically plumaged, often dressed in sombre shades of brown, which keeps them safe from predators during the critical nesting season. The males, or drakes, however, have no such need for camouflage, given that they play no role in incubating the eggs. As such, they are often brightly coloured, boldly marked and – completely unscientifically – delightful to look at.

Ducks on ice

Ask most folk to picture a duck, and they’ll probably think of the Mallard. This is the archetypal dabbling duck, with longish neck and broad, spatulate bill for sifting through shallow water and pulling up waterweeds. Mallards often occur in close proximity to human habitation, and I’d be willing to bet that most of our readers, in their youth, will have been taken by their parents to the local park or river to feed the ducks. But the Mallard’s familiarity belies its status as a truly wild bird with a global reach. Its natural range encompasses nearly eight million square miles of the northern hemisphere, from the Arctic to the sub-tropics.

Mallards

Sure enough, here in the UK our resident Mallards are supplemented in winter by immigrants from the north, and it’s notable how shy and flighty these are compared with the resident birds. Next time you see a Mallard, give it a second look, as there’s more to this familiar species than first meets the eye. The ones on your local pond may have travelled further than you think to get there!

Mallards at Sand Loch (plus a Wigeon among them – spot him?)

Another dabbling duck present in good numbers at Forvie just now is the Teal. It’s our smallest duck, barely half the size of the Mallard, and indeed the female resembles a miniature Mallard duck. Seen well though, the female Teal has a green flash in the wing, rather than the Mallard’s blue-purple. The drake Teal, on the other hand, is both distinctive and handsome, with his chestnut-and-green head and neat pin-striping. Teal can be found on both the freshwater lochs and the brackish waters of the estuary, where their presence is often betrayed by the male’s call – a short, high, ringing whistle, perhaps best rendered ‘preep‘ – to the uninitiated, a quite un-duck-like sound. In a flock, these calls form a pleasing musical chorus, providing the treble to the winter marshland soundtrack.

A Teal drake having a snooze

Wigeon probably technically qualify as dabbling ducks, but they are somewhat atypical. Possessed of short necks and small bills, their specialism is grazing rather than dabbling for food. They love to feed on land, often favouring saltmarshes and weedy foreshores as well as pastureland near water, and spend more time on their feet than most other ducks. To facilitate this, their legs are set more centrally on the body than other ducks (whose legs are more ‘rear-mounted’), giving the Wigeon an easier gait on land than most of its relatives. Like the Teal, the drake Wigeon also has a distinctive voice, a loud and exuberant glissando whistle, which I’ll attempt to transcribe as ‘WHEEE-ooo!‘. A long-time favourite of mine, a big flock of Wigeon in midwinter is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes.

Wheee-ooo!‘ Wigeon drakes displaying

Moving onto the diving ducks, the Tufted Duck is probably the species most commonly encountered on still, fresh water such as lochs and ponds. The drake is a real dandy, dressed simply but smartly in black and white, with a bright yellow eye and rakish ‘pony-tail’ on the back of his head. The female, typically, is more dowdy and lacks the ‘tuft’. Look out for these on Sand Loch throughout the year – but in common with most ducks, they’ll be looking their best during the winter months.

Tufted Duck, or rather drake

The Goldeneye is a duck that’s at home on both fresh and salt water. They breed scarcely in Scotland, with Speyside and upper Deeside the main strongholds, but most of our overwintering Goldeneye are immigrants from the Continent. During the winter months they can be found on lochs, estuaries and sheltered inshore waters, where they feed on small fish and aquatic invertebrates. They’re worth seeking out if only to witness the male’s frankly ridiculous display, wherein he just about folds himself in half while making a squeezing noise, all to impress the ladies. A true touch of class.

Drake Goldeneye throwing some shapes

Finally, it’d be almost rude to write a piece about ducks at Forvie without mentioning the Eider. An out-and-out salt-water specialist, Eiders rely on a supply of shellfish food, such as Mussels, to see them through the winter. The Ythan Estuary meets that requirement, and consequently Eiders can be seen throughout the year here. But it’s now that they’re looking their best, with the drakes beginning to display to the ducks in readiness for next year’s breeding season.

A resplendent Eider drake

In this sense, ducks are often one of the first indicators of spring, even though it currently seems a long way off. If you suffer the doldrums during this, the lowest ebb of the year, prescribing yourself a little bit of ‘duck therapy’ isn’t the worst idea. Besides their bright colours and melodic voices, these birds are simply full of the joys of spring, even before the year has turned. Don’t think of it as midwinter – just the duck season.