Dabbling ducks are much commoner than diving ducks in Britain, with resident breeders as well as winter visitors. Within the group, Mallards (Anas platyrhyncos, wingspan 90cm) are the most numerous by far in summer, when found along most rivers and even in smaller ponds as well as coastal waters. Because they are so common, the stunning plumage is sometimes taken for granted.
Mallards fight savagely in the breeding season and mating can also be violent, more like the behaviour of some invertebrates, with several males often going at a female who exceptionally can be drowned. Clutches can number 17 eggs (average ten), with more than one brood a year. Warmer autumns allow them to breed well into September, though the chicks’ chances of survival are reduced. Vast numbers add to the total as migrants in winter.
Mandarin Ducks (Aix galericulata, wingspan 70 cm), are smaller than Mallards but make up for relative lack of size by being pretty feisty. They are an exception – the Little Owl (Athene noctua) is another – in being a non-native species which appears to have had no negative effects on native wildlife.
Endangered in their far eastern homelands, they were introduced deliberately or as escapes from private collections in the 20th century and are commonest in Surrey and Berkshire. As usual with ducks, the drab female looks after the clutch of chicks, which invariably hatch in a hole in a tree.
An increasing number of Gadwall (Anas strepera, wingspan 90cm) nest in Britain and there are more wintering here as well, with any large pond likely to see some together with their marvellously vermiculated plumage. They feed on aquatic vegetation obtained by swimming along with the head under water, though they are also noted for ‘mugging’ Coots (Fulica atra). There is a record from Germany of a flock of around 300 having to rely entirely on Coots after the water levels rose, making the vegetation inaccessible.
Shovelers (Anas clypeata, wingspan 80cm) have their principal strongholds in the Netherlands (14,000 breeding pairs) and Russia (perhaps 80,000 breeding pairs) but around 1,500 pairs breed here. The specialised ‘filtering’ method of feeding limits the areas where the Shoveler can go and the preferred habitat for breeding is wet meadows interspersed with areas of slightly deeper water, all containing lush vegetation.
This is exactly the type of habitat which has been under immense pressure in Britain for the last 300 years, and is likely to come under pressure in those parts of Europe (besides the Netherlands ) where it flourishes. Many more Shovelers winter in the UK than breed here, with numbers on the increase in the last couple of decades.
Pintail (Anas acuta, wingspan 90cm) are elegant birds with similar habitat requirements to the Shoveler and found breeding mainly in Finland (35,000 breeding pairs) and Russia (250,000 breeding pairs). Again, many winter here, a comment which applies equally to Wigeon (Anas penelope, wingspan 80cm), which breed almost entirely in northern Europe (Scandinavia 100,000+ breeding pairs, Russia 200,000 breeding pairs).
Wigeon are more easily seen in groups than Shoveler or Pintail as they often leave the water to waddle around feeding on neighbouring grassland. They are easily ‘spooked’, taking off en masse, but although fast fliers they are not so quick as the Teal (Anas crecca, wingspan 60cm), our smallest native duck.
Teal are abundant, breeding mainly in northern Europe with Britain having only a handful. In winter they can be seen in virtually any wetland, including rivers when these are not flooded and provide good cove
Exceptionally among ducks, the Garganey (Anas querquedula, wingspan 61cm) is entirely migratory in its northern European range, spending the winter in the tropics, particularly west Africa. They use shallow lakes, marsh, reedbed and wet meadows, feeding on leaves, shoots and invertebrates.
Garganeys are only sporadic breeders in Britain, with rarely more than 100 pairs in any year, usually with the emphasis on the east and south-east. They arrive back here in March and depart from August onwards. Most breed in Russia (up to 475,000 pairs), Belarus and the Ukraine, and numbers in western Europe declined sharply between 1970 and 1990, from 10,000 pairs in the Netherlands to fewer than 2,000. Problems in their wintering grounds, as well as a reduction in the number of suitable habitats for breeding, have not assisted this bonny species.
As a postscript, the tendency to feed geese and ducks, mainly Mallards, in ponds in particular can have a negative effect on other flora and fauna due to the faeces the birds deposit and the bread they fail to eat, both of which end up on the bottom. The result is over-enrichment of the water. The result of ridiculous over-feeding at one pond in Surrey in 2005 is seen in the image above.
A century ago, residents of the average market town in southern England probably would have viewed such feeding as nonsensical, as well as unsound. Nowadays the old knowledge has gone and even when over-enrichment forces the draining of ponds, the process begins again immediately re-filling has occurred. Seemingly this is because those managing the sites too often are unprepared to have a shot at educating the public about the effects of their actions for fear of causing offence. That’s progress for you.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.