Tuesday 15 December 2020

Ducks Deluxe 14th December 2020

A welcome day of sunshine greeted me this Monday. I was all set to make the short trip to Slimbridge WWT having pre-booked my visit on Saturday, something that is a pre-requisite at Slimbridge and in many other places in this year of fear and anxiety that aflicts us all.

My plan was simple. To go and enjoy myself for a morning in the Rushy Hide, photographing ducks and male Northern Pintails in particular and forget about everything else. This time of year is when all male ducks are looking at their very best, dressed in their finest plumage as they go about attracting a mate. In the colourless  tones  of  Britain's mid winter landscapes their spectacular plumage brings a welcome dash of colour.

The Rushy Hide was the place I recalled visiting last winter and noting that the lagoon in front of it was much favoured by the pintails. I could but hope it would be the same this year.

I checked in at WWT Slimbridge when they opened at 9.30 and made my way to the Rushy Hide. With the visiting numbers restricted due to the virus, I knew the hide was unlikely to be well populated and indeed it only had one occupant when I arrived. I made for the far corner and looking out, there were fifteen or so Pintails, either asleep on the bank to my left or swimming on the lagoon in front of the hide along with other waterfowl, the most notable being half a dozen Bewick's Swans. 

Northern Pintails and Eurasian Teal
One male Pintail in particular was doing his best to court a female but every one he approached was already paired and he was rebuffed, often quite violently, by the females he approached.

No thank you!
When displaying he held his long neck erect, depressed his head and elevated his tail while uttering a melodic short chirrup note not dissimilar to that of a Teal. A subtle and refined display which was in harmony with his elegant appearance

Displaying male Northern Pintail
I felt quite sorry for him as he tried and tried to court a female but was always rejected.To my eyes he looked quite handsome and I could but hope he would eventually find a female that would find him attractive and respond to his amorous overtures. It certainly was not for want of trying on his part.

Male Pintails are supremely elegant, possessing a long neck and narrow bill, counterbalanced by a 'pintail' where the central tail feathers are elongated, giving the bird a pleasing and graceful symmetry.The long tail feathers gave rise to one of its former local names, Sea Pheasant.

The  rest of the plumage is also striking.The male has a head of chocolate brown and a narrow white stripe runs down each side to join the white neck, breast and underparts. Its back and flanks are vermiculated, grey on white, the back overlaid with black centred, elongated scapulars and the under tail coverts are velvet black. Its bill black in the centre with broad blue grey edging on either side.

They have a wide distribution in the northern hemisphere, extending from North America through Europe to Asia and are still one of the world's commonest ducks, there are six million in North America alone, although it is now in steep decline in many countries due to loss of habitat. Here in Britain only about thirty pairs breed, mainly in western Scotland and Tiree in the Inner Hebrides in particular. The twenty to thirty thousand that visit here in winter will disperse back to their distant breeding areas beyond Britain and the fifteen or so individuals  I was currently looking at will do likewise, leaving Slimbridge in early Spring. I doubt if any are from the very small Scottish breeding population but you never know.

Most of the Pintails that visit us in winter favour coastal sites around the northwest of England, frequenting the Dee, Mersey and Ribble estuaries and also Morecambe Bay.

Of course there were other waterfowl frequenting the lagoon and my eyes were drawn to the half a dozen Bewick's Swans swimming on the lagoon and for which Slimbridge is renowned as one, if not the best place, where you can be guaranteed to see them, with the swans coming back year after year to spend the winter safely within the Trust's grounds and where they are fed daily. A musical bugling rang through the crisp air as a pair took off from the lagoon and dispersed to another part of the grounds. Bewick's Swans were named by William Yarrell in 1830 in honour of the eighteenth century Northumbrian artist and ornithologist, Thomas Bewick.

They do not possess the bulk of our more familiar Mute Swan or the similar looking but larger Whooper Swan, that visits us from Iceland each winter. This gives them a grace and persona very much their own. Each swan has a unique yellow and black pattern on its bill which enables each individual to be readily identified by the staff at Slimbridge, where they have been studied for over 50 years.Sadly they have been declining since 1995 and the world population is now below 20,000. Their two thousand mile migration from Arctic Russia to western Europe is fraught with dangers such as illegal hunting and collision with power lines. These only add to the existing pressures on the birds from habitat loss and global warming. Over a third of Bewick's Swans examined at Slimbridge had shotgun pellets embedded in their bodies which is a sad state of affairs for such a beautiful bird. 

I stood and watched them, swimming and arching their long necks below the water to sift the mud for the last bits of grain left from the feed the night before and mused what the future holds for them.They are safe and relatively secure at Slimbridge but each year they have to make a double migration to and from Arctic Russia. They are wild beings and we cannot keep them here and must trust to goodwill and a more compassionate attitude towards them from the foreign lands they fly over.

Bewick's Swans
Eventually the Bewicks were all gone and I turned to the other occupants of the lagoon.

Male Shelduck

It is hardly possible to miss a Shelduck with its bold black,white and chestnut plumage.Their head can look black but when the feathers catch the sun they take on an iridescent green tone. A stick on red bill the colour of sealing wax and pink legs add further bling to their bright and colourful appearance.They are slightly larger than a duck, falling somewhere in size between a duck and a wild goose.

They are a rare and refreshing success story as their numbers are increasing in Britain and they are spreading into new areas, often inland.Their choice of breeding site is almost unique for a duck in that they typically choose rabbit holes in sandbanks and dunes, often situated below gorse bushes and brambles for addtional protection.The female is as brightly coloured as the male so breeding in rabbit holes renders her invisible to predators as she incubates her eggs.

Eurasian Wigeon
A drake wigeon is a very handsome duck in full breeding plumage. I can remember, at a very early age, seeing an evocative painting by Peter Scott of wigeon flighting into a saltmarsh and being fascinated by the male's exotic plumage and certainly unlikely presence on the lake of my local suburban park.The seeds of a lifetime fascination with birds had been sown.

Wigeon are gregarious in winter and at Slimbridge, as with other places where they congregate they are present in large numbers, thousands swarming over the wet fields, closely packed, a moving carpet of colour and feather, plucking at the grass. Every so often the entire flock takes alarm and they all flee in a panic to the nearest stretch of water but soon small groups begin to encroach back onto the grass and resume feeding, being joined at short intervals by other groups until the entire flock is back where it began.

The air is regularly punctuated by the male's mellifluous whistle, a 'wheeeooo' that resonates from the fields and flashes of water they love. It is one of the archetypal sounds of winter, evocative and thrilling, coming at regular intervals from the flock as the birds move across the grass or swim on the shallow water.

They are fast fliers. the flock swirling in the sky, every individual in unison with its nearest neigbour. Eric Simms caught the mood perfectly in describing flocks of winter Wigeon when he wrote 'What a grand noise they make as they come tearing down, one, two, three hundred feet in a few seconds, to rock and sideslip as they near the surface of the water.' 

Mallards tend to be overlooked or simply ignored as they seem so commonplace, especially in a location such as Slimbridge where one's attention is naturally drawn to the more colourful and less frequently seen species of duck. They are the default duck to be found on virtually any reasonable sized pond or park lake throughout the land. So ubiquitous are they that virtually anyone, birder or not can name them.

Watching from the hide I noted a group of Mallard indulging in some vigorous bathing and one drake in particular was really giving it a go, thrashing the water with his wings, upending and giving himself a comprehensive wash and brush up, looking to be thoroughly enjoying himself in the winter sunshine.

But soon my interest wavered. After all I have seen countless Mallards, too many for even this one to retain my attention for any length of time.To be frank it was more the energetic display of bathing that held my interest but when that stopped I soon looked elsewhere.

Eurasian Teal
Sharing the sunny grass bank with the Pintails was a small group of Eurasian Teal, fast asleep for the majority of the time, only moving when the larger Pintails barged through them. They are a very small, compact duck, with a pleasing rotund appearance, the drakes like little portly men waddling self importantly about on the grass before settling once more to slumber.They form small congregations but unlike the Wigeon are never found in huge roving flocks out on the open fields.Rather they prefer to shelter, half hidden in the bankside vegetation and are never far from cover.They are right to be wary as there are avian predators at Slimbridge, attracted by the large numbers of ducks. Peregrines, Marsh Harriers and an occasional Goshawk haunt Slimbridge and will hunt and take one given the chance.

It was noon and my time was coming to a close at Slimbridge.The grounds were still strangely quiet, unsettling as the lack of people reminded those of us present that this was no normal time and we had constantly to mind ourselves about social distancing and wearing face masks. The latter such a chore when you wear glasses as the cold air inevitably caused my breath to mist up my glasses but masks had to be worn at all times in the hides with no exception

One last treat presented itself before my departure. A single Lapwing had strayed onto the mud right in front of the hide, deserting a large flock of its kind that was scattered on the grass, loafing the morning away at the other end of the lagoon. From a distance they are predominantly a black and white bird, especially when they fly, flashing alternately black and white as they tilt their bodies and wings in flight. Seen close, as this one was, it is a different bird that presents itself. True they are still black and white on their face and underparts but their upperparts are like green silk, shot through in parts with iridescent glimmers of emerald and violet purple. The iridescence radiating to a greater or lesser degree as the bird moves in the sun. Its progress was that of a typical plover in that it moved in a series of small steps and then took a long pause before moving on, casting a large lustrous eye on the ground for prey whenever it stopped. It was so close I could clearly see it rapidly trembling one leg and foot to create a vibration on the ground that presumably attracted worms to the mud's surface, thus revealing themselves to be siezed by the bird. 

The Lapwing walked below and past me. Secreted in the hide it never noticed me and carried on along the water's edge. I turned and walked in the opposite direction, out of the hide and back into the strange world I now inhabit and so very different from the last time I was here.

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