The Complete Guide to British Birds: Diving Ducks
The Beautiful Drake
Like its close relative the tufted duck, the pochard habitually nests in reed beds and other vegetation around inland stretches of fresh water. Unlike the tufted duck, however, the pochard has not yet bred to any great extent on the vast acreage of wetland created in recent years by man such as sand pits, gravel pits and reservoirs.
The pochard chooses its nesting site carefully, requiring an area of open water free from floating plants but rich in the submerged vegetation that provides food, including seeds, leaves, tubers, crustaceans, molluscs, worms and insects. The pochard gathers its food by diving down to between three to eight feet. It particularly favours lakes with tall vegetation fringing them, and sheltered islands with cover, in which the nest will be safe from most mammal predators.
The nest is either a shallow cup in the ground, lined with reeds and leaves, or a platform with a cup built up from the bottom in shallow water. In either case, it is lined with down. The eggs are greenish grey and a typical clutch numbers from six to twelve eggs. The pochard is rather a silent species, with the most frequent call being a harsh, purring ‘kerrrr’ uttered by the female.
Tufted Duck Pair
The tufted duck has made a special place for itself on the lakes and ponds of city parks and gardens, where it has become one of the main contenders in daily scrambles for scraps of stale bread and biscuit, and is often almost completely tame. A stranger to Britain before 1849, the tufted duck has since become our commonest diving duck and can be found bobbing over the waves of suitable stretches of water almost anywhere in Britain. In the British Isles as a whole there are probably more than 7000 pairs of tufted duck. One cause of its rapid spread has been the development of lakes from disused gravel pits and reservoirs.
Another reason for the rapid spread of the tufted duck was the introduction, and wildfire expansion, of the zebra mussel, a native of southern Russia first discovered in the London docks in 1824. These freshwater mollusks are a favourite food of the tufted duck, along with small fish, frogs, spawn and insects. Occasionally tufted ducks also dive for water plants.
The tufted duck is aptly named, as the drake sports a long tuft of feathers down the back of its head, which is particularly striking when blowing in the wind. The drake’s cry is a soft whistle, while the duck’s is a growling purr.
This bird’s name was thought by the eminent ornithologist George Montagu (1751-1815) to be derived from its habit of feeding on broken shells, called scaup. Its diet chiefly consists of mollusks, especially mussels; it also eats crustaceans such as crabs, and various insects and worms.
Any species that breeds rarely in Britain are automatically protected by law, and the scaup, or scaup-duck as it used to be known falls into that category. In the breeding season they frequent inland waters such as lakes and rivers, but in winter they mostly take to the sea, often gathering in large feeding flocks off the coasts.
In its courtship display the male swims towards the female with his head stretched up and his bill pointing steeply upwards. He also displays with a quick stretching up of the head, accompanied by a cooing call. Scaup often breed in spread out colonies on islands in lakes. The nest is a scrape or hollow, frequently in an open situation but occasionally protected by a tussock of grass. It is lined with vegetation and insulated with down from the female’s breast. The eggs, laid from late May onwards, usually number 6-12. Incubation typically takes about three weeks, and the ducklings become fully independent after about six weeks.
Male And Female Eider
Eider In Flight
Bedding manufacturers have found no better insulating material for the traditional eiderdown, than the soft brown down of the female eider, which grows especially to protect the clutch of eggs in the nest. Duck-down farmers remove it in carefully limited quantities for commercial use.
The voice of the drake eider is a cooing ‘ooo-ooo-ooo,’ with the middle syllable slightly higher than the rest in pitch. The eider often breeds in colonies on offshore islands, on the coast, or on the shores of lakes and rivers, generally in rather exposed sites. Eiders are thoroughly at home in rough seas, swimming easily through the surf round rocky coasts and islets while diving for mollusks.
The breeding season begins early in April in northern England, and some six weeks later in northern Scotland. Normally one clutch of three to ten eggs is produced each year. The female, crouching close to the ground, incubates her eggs for long, unbroken spells over a period of about a month. The ducklings, mainly blackish-brown in colour, are led down to the water soon after hatching. They are able to look after themselves at about 9-11 weeks old.
The Golden Couple
Common Goldeneye Courtship Behaviour
In 1970 a goldeneye duck and four large ducklings were spotted swimming on a small loch in central Scotland. This was the first proof that the goldeneye had bred successfully in the British Isles. Normally the goldeneye is a winter visitor that breeds in northern Scandinavia and northern Asia. It prefers to nest in tree holes near a lake or a river, but also uses rabbit burrows and specially provided nest-boxes. On the Continent, goldeneye’s have often taken over old nest holes of black woodpeckers.
The bottom of the goldeneye’s nesting cavity is unlined, but simply insulated with some grayish-white down and a few feathers. A typical clutch numbers 6-12 smooth, greenish-blue eggs. The young scramble out of the hole, and fall to the ground from quite a considerable height; fortunately they generally survive unharmed, and those that do take eight weeks to fully develop their flight feathers.
Goldeneye in flight have the fast wing beats typical of diving ducks, but they do take off more easily than most, and the wings produce a pronounced whistling sound which is quite unmistakable. In winter many goldeneye take to coastal waters, but some small flocks may be found on large stretches of inland water.
An Unusual Duck
The voice of the male long-tailed duck is extraordinary among ducks for its melodious, resonant and far carrying quality. The variety of its calls, too, is remarkable; the calls of a displaying flock have been likened by some ornithologists to the sound of distant bagpipes.
The period from the end of September to the end of October sees the arrival in British waters of the wintering population of long-tailed ducks from their northern breeding grounds. The nest, a mere scrape in the ground sparsely lined with plant material and down, is usually sited in thick vegetation not far from water; occasionally it is in a rock crevice. The duck incubates its six to nine olive-buff eggs for about three and a half weeks. The ducklings’ down is brown tipped with gold above and grayish-white below. Occasionally several broods may join together in a creche, a phenomenon observed in several species of wildfowl, for example in eider and shelduck. The young become independent after about five weeks.
The bird’s food consists predominantly of animal life such as mollusks and crustaceans, which it gathers by diving, but it also enjoys seeds, leaves and other vegetable matter.
The Duck With The Cutest Name
There is no mistaking the drake smew, one of Britain’s most handsome winter visitors; its snow white and jet black feathers contrast strikingly, and are set off by a drooping crest. In flight, more black plumage shows, adding to the pied effect.
Though distinctive in appearance, the smew is not easily or often seen. It comes to Britain every year, when the freshwater lakes and rivers of its forest breeding grounds in northern Scandinavia and Russia freeze up, but it does not do so in large numbers. Moreover, the smew is a very shy, fast flying and elusive bird and does not reveal itself in the noisy manner of so many ducks. Outside of the breeding season the only sound likely to be heard is the female’s occasional harsh, rattling call.
The smew will sometimes eat vegetable matter, but its food consists mainly of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. Its saw edged bill is especially well adapted to grasping and holding slippery fish. At seasons when they are plentiful, the bird will also take quantities of insects. Most of its food is found by diving below the surface. Usually, its dives are short, lasting for less than 30 seconds on average; they are also shallow, rarely exceeding 13 feet. The prey is usually brought to the surface for swallowing.
A Common Scoter Drake
Only small numbers of common scoters regularly breed in Britain; but in winter these visitors from the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions concentrate in large flocks around Britain’s coasts. Between September and April they form ‘rafts’ of birds on the waters offshore. The common scoter is unusual among ducks in that the male is almost all black, with only an orange yellow patch on its bill. The female is dark brown with pale cheeks. The common scoters favourite food is shellfish, particularly mussels; they will occasionally eat insects and vegetable matter.
The few common scoters that breed in the British Isles nest beside lochs in mountain country or on upland moors. The nest is a shallow scrape in the soil and peat. It is sparingly lined with a few scraps of lichen, moss and grass, insulated with down.
A typical clutch consists of five to ten smooth, slightly glossy, pale creamy-buff eggs which take four and a half weeks to hatch. As incubation does not start until the clutch is complete, all the ducklings emerge within a short time and are able to leave the best with their mother with little delay, thus reducing their chances of falling victims to predators.
A Velvet Scoter Drake
If a few of the birds in a flock of scoters look slightly larger than the rest, and have white patches on their faces and wings, then some velvet scoters have mingled with common scoters. In other respects they are unobtrusive and silent birds. It has been claimed that velvet scoters have bred in the British Isles, but they usually only winter in Britain, around the coasts, far from their Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding grounds. The young are virtually independent at about five weeks old, but may remain in the breeding area for some weeks before migrating.
Flocks do not generally number more than 12-20 birds. In this the velvet scoter differs from the common scoter, which may be seen if flocks of hundreds, sometimes thousands. Mollusks such as mussels form the bulk of the velvet scoter’s food, which it obtains by diving to the bottom, which may be more than 20 feet down. Feeding birds usually remain submerged for 20-40 seconds, but longer dives of up to a minute in length have been recorded.
The surf scoter, which breeds in North America, is another rare winter visitor, for it usually winters on the eastern or western coasts of Canada and the United States.
...And The Duck
These ducks have a bad reputation among trout and salmon fishermen because of their taste for the young of the two fish. Defenders of the red-breasted merganser argue, however, that they also eat many non-game species, including eels, perch and pike which compete with or prey on the eggs or the young of salmon and trout.
The red-breasted merganser and the goosander are the only two species of sawbill duck that breed in the British Isles. They have finely serrated cutting edges to their bills that enable them to grasp slippery fish. The red-breasted merganser has a long history of residence in Scotland and Ireland. Since about 1950, however, in spite of some persecution, birds have spread into England, breeding as far south as Derbyshire in the north Midlands, and also into Wales.
The nest is a shallow depression in the ground lined with grass, leaves and down. Thick vegetation usually makes it hard to find. From late April to early July the female lays and incubates eight to ten pale buff eggs that take a month to hatch. When the female leaves the nest, she camouflages the eggs with down. The ducklings can fly about two months after hatching.
A Drake With Two Ducks
The Goosander: A Profile
The goosander is one of the few species of duck that frequently nests in holes in trees. Within two or three days of hatching, the ducklings are encouraged to leave the nest. As this happens eight to ten weeks before the young birds can fly, they face a vertical drop of several feet to the ground below, which they usually survive without injury.
Goosanders sometimes nest in holes in banks and among boulders, as does their close relative the red-breasted merganser. The nest, on a base of leaves, has a plentiful lining of down to keep the clutch of up to 15 creamy white eggs warm. The drake takes virtually no part in the incubation of the eggs or the raising of the young; instead the drake congregates with fellow males close by.
As it lives on fish, the goosander suffers the same persecution by conservators of fisheries as its fellow sawbill duck, the red-breasted merganser. Since the goosander is more of a freshwater species than the merganser, it is persecuted on an even larger scale. Nevertheless, since it first nested in Perthshire in 1871, it has colonised much of Scotland and spread into England, Wales and Ireland.
More to follow...