Arguably my favourite duck is the Garganey, a small duck slightly larger than a Common Teal that visits us for the Spring and Summer only. The male in breeding plumage is attractively patterned with silvery grey flanks, long, drooping black and white scapulars falling across his back, stippled dark chestnut head and breast with prominent white stripes sweeping in broad curves from forehead to nape across either side of his head. The female is much duller and can be mistaken for a female Common Teal apart from the dark markings across her buff face as opposed to the Common Teal's more bland, open faced appearance. After breeding the male loses all his fine feathering and adopts a plumage much like the female.
I always look forward to their arrival here in late March or April and Port Meadow is one of the best places to seek them out in Oxfordshire although they can and do turn up at other places in the county. They acquired the name cricket teal in times past due to the curious clicking ratchet like call made by the male which sounds a little like a cricket.
Port Meadow, if the floods are right is visited by this duck almost annually in Spring and this year was no exception with a pair arriving about a week ago and they are still there as I write this blog. They will eventually move on, no doubt to find a suitable breeding area but will remain for some days at Port Meadow feeding up to regain their strength after their long migration from Africa. The shallow flood water on Port Meadow is ideal for a dabbling duck such as the Garganey as they can sift the mud, rich in nutrients, through their bills.
Although primarily regarded as a secretive duck of inland marshes and secluded stretches of fresh water, on seawatches in March and April, when I used to live near Brighton, I have seen migrating flocks of up to twelve passing east over the sea just off the coast. A Spring flock including a number of the attractively plumaged males always sent a thrill through my much chilled body and justified the hardship as I sat on the exposed breakwater with my telescope.
Garganey leave us in the autumn to fly south, covering prodigious distances, in the main part overland and in the case of birds that have bred in Europe, Russia and surrounding states crossing The Sahara in a single flight to their winter homes in western Africa and occasionally much further to southern Africa. They have a very widespread breeding distribution throughout northern and western Europe and Russia. Further east ducks migrate south to spend their winter in India and Australasia often in very large numbers. The worldwide population has been estimated at just under three million individuals but the birds that come to us in Great Britain are small in number, varying year to year from around fifty to one hundred pairs and do not normally breed much further north than the Midlands with their main breeding areas being in Norfolk and Suffolk.
So it was that early this morning before the runners, dog walkers and strollers took to the Meadow I found myself walking out to the flood in search of the latest pair of Garganey to visit. It was a cold, blustery northwesterly wind that greeted me, stinging my cheeks and ears but it had dispersed the earlier grey cloud and now a raw but brightly sunlit morning beckoned.
I had the place to myself with the only disturbance being the exhortations from the cox's of the various rowing eights that were cleaving their way up and down the brown waters of the nearby Thames. The flood itself was, in contrast to the muddy waters of the river, reflecting the blue of the sky like some vast pale and rippled blue stain on the bright green of the emergent grass.
I found the pair of Garganey at the far end of the flood feeding avidly in the shallow muddy edges of the flood, sifting the mud with their bills as they worked their way through the aquatic plantlife. Most definitely a pair and an absolute picture of harmony, remaining close together without rancour and the male assiduously keeping a look out every so often while his mate continuously guzzled and nuzzled her way through the shallows.
Garganey can be very tame at times but others can be quite wary and these two fell into the latter category, but due to the lack of any human presence and especially dogs, were confident enough to feed relatively close in to the shoreline by the path to Burgess Field, so by carefully stalking them and using the cover of a line of trees I managed to get reasonably close but eventually a pair of undetected Mallard in a ditch betrayed my presence and they and the Garganey dispersed further out onto the flood.
No matter it had been a happy and fulfilling hour watching them and I made my way back to the car uplifted by this much anticipated and longed for annual encounter.