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Ducking and Diving: Somerset's Charming Ducks

PUBLISHED: 10:12 09 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:41 20 February 2013

A flock of waders and ducks in flight over Shapwick Heath

A flock of waders and ducks in flight over Shapwick Heath

For the novice naturalist, ducks offer an engaging and accessible way of taking those first steps into learning about our native wildlife. And as David Chapman explains, Somerset has some real beauties to be seen at this time of year.

I can remember when I was young and beginning to take an interest in bird watching, there were certain types of bird that I found more appealing than others and near the bottom of the list were ducks. Having only seen ducks in collections - on duck ponds and being fed by people in the local park - I suppose I didn't regard them as being truly wild birds, but little did I know about the variety of species and actually just how wary of human contact many of them are.

When it comes to watching wild ducks there is no better time than winter and few better places than Somerset. Many thousands of ducks which breed in Northern and Eastern Europe head south and west for the winter, looking for safe wetlands in which to find food and refuge. The Somerset Levels, as well as the estuaries and rivers of the county, provide such a refuge, and to be able to watch thousands of ducks and waders take flight together is a truly inspirational sight.

Ducks can be split into two groups - dabblers and divers - terms that simply describe the methods used by the birds to find food. Divers will totally submerge themselves in search of food, which might include aquatic insects, crustacea, fish and plant matter. Dabblers feed from the surface of the water or, if they can't reach down far enough, they will up-end showing their rumps and tails above the water, and some species will readily leave the water to graze on adjacent wet meadows or mud flats.

The smallest of the dabblers is known as the teal (Anas crecca). The teal is probably about a third of the weight of a mallard and is our most secretive duck, preferring to remain hidden at the edge of a reed-fringed lake rather than exposing itself fully to our view. However, as well as being found on freshwater lakes, these ducks also occur in good numbers on estuaries where reeds are not found. Here they remain concealed from us only by distance, so a good pair of binoculars or even a telescope will be required to get a good view of them.

When it comes to identifying the teal, it isn't too difficult since it is easily the smallest of our ducks, so size alone should be enough to clinch it. Meanwhile, if you manage to get a closer view of the male (drake), then his true beauty will become apparent with the most striking feature being the plumage around his head. Chestnut-red feathers contrast with a green patch around his eye and thin yellow lines separate the two colours. He has a cream-coloured rump and grey flanks with the occasional glimpse of a green patch on his wing, known as the speculum. The female shares this green speculum but other than that she has quite a plain brown plumage, similar to a female mallard.

Many of the larger ducks are less than graceful at take-off but the teal is nimble enough to launch straight up into the air; it is for this reason that their collective noun is a 'spring' of teal. When in flight, the teal is swift and agile. Flocks of this dainty duck swerve and swirl in tight formation whereas most other ducks tend only to fly in straightish lines.

Larger than the teal but still smaller than the mallard is our most numerous wintering duck, the wigeon (Anas penelope). Like the teal this bird shuns our attention by staying as far from us as possible, but unlike the teal, wigeon are often found in huge flocks on our estuaries. They rely for their safety on the many eyes watching for danger, but in truth they are less likely to become the meal of a bird of prey because of their larger size.

Whilst the teal can be identified by size alone I would suggest that the wigeon can be identified by profile alone. It is surprising how different one duck's profile can be from another with just the slightest of differences to its features. Its body is quite short and a little plump, but look carefully at a wigeon and you will see that it has a short neck, quite a high forehead and a very small bill; altogether this makes a wigeon's head look very dainty.

In close-up the male wigeon is a very attractive bird with a distinctive yellow forehead set against a brick-red head, whilst his grey body is reddish at the front and black at the tail. The female wigeon, in common with all ducks, is less colourful than the male, but even she has an attractive reddish-brown plumage along her flanks, which makes her look positively colourful when compared to the female mallard.

One other noticeable feature of the wigeon is its call. Quite unlike the 'quack' of a mallard, the wigeon has a high-pitched whistling call, which has led to a range of common names including whistler, whim and whewer.

My final choice of dabbler is the largest of the lot and probably the easiest to identify. The pintail (Anas acuta) was named because of its long thin tail giving the male a very obvious profile. This is the least numerous of the three featured ducks in Somerset during the winter, though across the world it is actually one of the commonest species of duck, being found across the entire northern hemisphere.

The pintail is about the same size as the mallard but it has a more elegant profile with a long, slim neck. The male's head is made even more appealing by the narrow white line which extends up the sides of the bird's neck through its chocolate-brown plumage. His body is predominantly grey with a black rump, white breast and long, thin, black tail. The female is paler brown, more delicately marked and with a longer tail than the female mallard, though she lacks the full tail plumes of the male.

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