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The Complete Guide to British Birds: Dabbling Ducks

Updated on April 1, 2017

The Male

The adult male in full breeding plumage  can be distinguished further by the knob at the top of his bill.
The adult male in full breeding plumage can be distinguished further by the knob at the top of his bill. | Source

The Female

The adult female has a much duller plumage and lacks the distinctive knob possessed by the males.
The adult female has a much duller plumage and lacks the distinctive knob possessed by the males. | Source

Common Shelduck

These colourful waterfowl leave Britain every summer, usually around July time, for their annual ‘moult migration’ that follows the breeding season. Thousands upon thousands gather in the tidal estuaries of the Heligoland off the north German coast, where they become flightless for about three to four weeks while their entire plumage is renewed. They return to British shores in the autumn.

After three to six months, the new, duller eclipse plumage gives way to the extremely handsome breeding plumage. The nest is made by the female and sparsely lined with grass and insulated with down and feathers from the bird’s own breast. It is often placed 8-10 feet down an old rabbit burrow in sand dunes, or in another similar hole. The duck lays a single clutch of 8-15 creamy white eggs, usually in early May. The duck does all the sitting while the drake remains close by. The ducklings, which hatch in just under a month, are led to the nearest water by one or both parents. They can dive expertly if they feel threatened, and are totally independent of their parents after just two months. Shelduck broods tend to join up in large creches.

A favourite food of the shelduck is a small marine snail called Hydrobia. They also eat small shellfish, insects, worms and some vegetable matter.

Common Shelducks On Film

A Happy Couple

The adult male (above) has a chestnut head and pale crown, while the female (below) is more uniformly brown than other female ducks with a small bill and high forehead.
The adult male (above) has a chestnut head and pale crown, while the female (below) is more uniformly brown than other female ducks with a small bill and high forehead. | Source

Eurasian Wigeon

Wigeon are somewhat unusual among ducks in that they often graze on grass in a manner reminiscent of a goose, although they do feed in water and occasionally ‘up-end’ in a more conventional duck fashion. The scattered British breeding birds, confined mainly to Scotland and northern England, probably number 300-400 pairs, built up over the past 170 years or so since the first nest was found in Sutherland in 1834. The main breeding area outside Iceland and Britain is a wide Arctic and sub-Arctic belt running west from Norway across Asia to the Bering Strait.

The typical habitat of the wigeon is fresh water that is shallow and still, although they also nest by rivers on occasion and on coastal marshes also. When available, they favour islands as a breeding site as they afford protection against predatory mammals. The nest is a shallow hollow lined with leaves, grass and down and sited on the ground beneath overhanging tussocks or shrubs. Seven to nine eggs are incubated by the duck for around three weeks.

Wigeon often fly in spectacular formations numbering hundreds, sometimes thousands when moving along estuaries or mud flats. The drake makes a loud and musical ‘whee-ooo’, with a purring growl given by the female.

The Drake

The adult male's most prominent features are black tail converts and red brown, black and white wing patches.
The adult male's most prominent features are black tail converts and red brown, black and white wing patches. | Source

The Duck

The female looks very similar to the female mallard, apart from white wing patches.
The female looks very similar to the female mallard, apart from white wing patches. | Source

Gadwall

Language experts offer no clue whatsoever as to how the gadwall got its name which centuries ago were written as ‘gadwell’ or ‘gaddel’. But before 1850, when a visiting pair was trapped and wing-clipped, this duck was known only as a winter immigrant. Today a few breed in Scotland and winter mainly in Ireland, but most of the 100-200 pairs that breed in Britain are concentrated in East Anglia, where they are descended from captive stock.

The drake of the species, whose true homelands are central and western Asia and western North America, is rather drab when compared to other drakes. The bird’s voice is rather unremarkable too, with various grunts and whistles from the male and a mallard like quack from the female making up its repertoire.

Eggs are laid at the end of April in a ground hollow, lined with grass or leaves, insulated with down pulled from the duck’s breast and well hidden in thick vegetation. They are covered whenever the duck elects to leave the nest. After about a month’s worth of incubation, the hatched ducklings are shepherded out of the nest as soon as their down dries. They are easy targets for predators, so keep on the move as much as possible to bolster their survival chances. Gadwalls are strict vegetarians, apart from the first week of life, when the ducklings feast on protein rich insects, snails and worms.

The Gadwall's Mating Dance

In Flight

An impressive photo of a common teal drake in full flight.
An impressive photo of a common teal drake in full flight. | Source

Common Teal

With their variegated colouring, teal drakes are attractive little birds, but because they are a favourite winter for wildfowlers they are mostly far too wary to allow birdwatchers a close look. The common teal is Britain’s smallest duck, and the call of the drake, a musical bell like ‘shring, shring,’ is very distinctive.

Teal fly fast with rapid wing beats, giving the impression of being in some sort of trouble. They are typical ‘dabbling’ ducks, feeding on the surface while swimming or walking in the shallows, sifting small seeds of water and marsh plants from the water with a nibbling action of the bill. Occasionally, in deeper water, they may ‘upend’ to reach deeper below the surface, but they never dive.

A Lovely Pair

The drake (above) has a chestnut head with a green eye patch. The duck's (below) only distinguishing feature is her black and green wing patch.
The drake (above) has a chestnut head with a green eye patch. The duck's (below) only distinguishing feature is her black and green wing patch. | Source

The teal as a breeding bird is widespread but thinly distributed in Britain, possibly numbering as few as 1500 pairs, but the population often increases with the arrival of passage birds in the spring and autumn, and by a large migrant population from northern Europe in winter. The teal is extremely secretive about its breeding arrangements. The nest is usually well hidden in thick cover is never visited by the conspicuous male, and only surreptitiously by the female. Teal ducklings very rarely venture into open water, as they are especially vulnerable to predation.

A Garganey Drake

The drake has a distinctive pale eye stripe on a mottled brown head.
The drake has a distinctive pale eye stripe on a mottled brown head. | Source

Two Females

The duck has a less prominent eye stripe and greyer plumage than the male.
The duck has a less prominent eye stripe and greyer plumage than the male. | Source

Garganey

A birdwatcher’s first glimpse of garganey may well be a pair of small ducks springing in alarm from a pool in a freshwater marsh, the drake showing a pale blue-grey forewing, white belly and broad, pale eye stripe on a mottled brown head. The drake’s call is a grating sounding like the rapid clicking of a tiny ratchet or a fisherman’s reel, will confirm the identification. But both the sight and sound are rare; numbers probably never exceed 100 pairs for the whole of Britain, and may fluctuate dramatically from year to year.

The bird feeds by swimming with its bill or its whole head submerged, by ‘upending,’ or sometimes by picking individual items of food from the surface. The garganey’s food consists of insects and their larvae, water beetles, caddisflies, midges, water snails, worms and the spawn of fish and frogs; it also eats roots, buds, leaves and fruits of pond-weed and water lilies.

The eight or nine brownish white eggs hatch after three weeks, and the ducklings can fly at around six weeks old. The drake becomes flightless for three or four weeks during its post breeding moult, when it adopts its ‘eclipse’ plumage. The females do not moult though, until the young are virtually independent.

A Garganey Drake Filmed At Slimbridge

The Most Familiar Ducks In The World

The drake (below) has a glossy green head, white collar, maroon breast and curly black tail feathers. The duck (above) has a greenish yellow bill and a violet blue wing patch.
The drake (below) has a glossy green head, white collar, maroon breast and curly black tail feathers. The duck (above) has a greenish yellow bill and a violet blue wing patch. | Source

Mallard

In both town and country, the mallard is the most familiar duck in the British Isles and across much of the world. It’s as much at home on a park lake or city canal at it is on a quiet country backwater or remote reservoir. Mallards living near towns have learned to live side by side with man, often relying on him to supplement their diet with bread and other scraps of food. Country-dwelling birds, however, have learned to fear humans, because of the activities of wildfowlers.

The mallard is a typical ‘dabbling’ duck, by virtue of the fact that it feeds on the surface of the water and can spring straight up into the air with a powerful whirring of wings. Its broad, flattened bill is adapted for filtering from the water a wide range of tiny plant and animal matter. The webbed, paddle like feet are placed well back on the mallard’s body so that it walk with a rolling waddle from side to side.

The female mallard makes the quacking sound that people often associate with ducks. The drake, however, also gives an occasional subdued hoarse sounding ‘raarb’ call, especially when suspicious or alarmed. Nests are made from leaves and grass, with a lining of down. They are generally well concealed often appearing in tree holes, meaning that the first thing that a duckling has to do is drop to the ground from a considerable height.

Mallard Ducklings

An Elegant Couple

The drake (left) has a chocolate and white head pattern and a long pointed tail, while the female (right) is pale brown and like the male is slim and rakish in build.
The drake (left) has a chocolate and white head pattern and a long pointed tail, while the female (right) is pale brown and like the male is slim and rakish in build. | Source

Northern Pintail

Both on the ground and in the air, this is the most elegant of the British ducks. Its long slender neck, wings and tail, combined with its subtle colouring, make it easy to recognise and attractive to watch. A flock passing high overhead makes a truly beautiful picture. The watcher can also revel in the drakes’ faint wheezing ‘geeeee’ calls and the ducks’ rattling sounds.

Most pintails spend only the winter in Britain. None was known to breed in the British Isles before 1869, and even now the breeding population barely reaches 50 pairs. They rarely nest on the same site for more than a couple of years, so it’s very difficult to make an accurate count, even though the nest is often less camouflaged than that of other ducks.

Breeding begins in mid April in southern Britain, but not until two months later in the north. Usually there are seven to eight eggs, varying in colour from creamy yellow to pale green or blue. As is usual in wildfowl, the duck solely incubates the eggs, camouflaged by her dull colouring, and defends the nest and the ducklings with distraction displays. The ducklings are brown with white stripes and grayish white under-parts and take to the water as soon as they are hatched. In just seven weeks they are ready to fly.

Northern Pintail Courtship

The Odd Couple

The drake (left) has a glossy green head, like that of a mallard, but the breast is white and the belly is chestnut. The duck (right) has a brown head and body with speckled underparts. The huge shovel bill is unmistakable in both sexes.
The drake (left) has a glossy green head, like that of a mallard, but the breast is white and the belly is chestnut. The duck (right) has a brown head and body with speckled underparts. The huge shovel bill is unmistakable in both sexes. | Source

Northern Shoveler

The most distinctive feature of the shoveler is the long, rounded, spade-like bill that gives the bird its name. The bill is used in the typical dabbling duck way, as it sifts through large volumes of water to filter out particles of food. This includes buds and seeds of water plants such as reeds and sedges, as well as algae and small mollusc's. Crustacean and insects are eaten, and so are tadpoles and spawn. The inside edges of the bill have numerous comb-like ‘teeth’ to trap food as water is forced through them.

The shoveler is a handsome but uncommon bird, with a very patchy distribution governed partly by the availability of its preferred habitat, marshy areas with pools, ditches and other areas of open water that have muddy shallows rich in food. The nest, like that of most of the shoveler’s close relatives, is a shallow hollow in the ground lined with grass, feathers and down.

There may be between seven and fourteen pale greenish eggs in a clutch, laid from April onwards. The female incubates them for about three and a half weeks. The ducklings, which are led away from the nest as soon as all have hatched and dried, soon show signs of developing out-sized bills. They can fly when they are six to seven weeks old. The duck only rears one brood a year.

How The Northern Shoveler Feeds

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    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Eddy, glad you liked it. I second that on the sharing. Thanks for popping by.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      What a wonderful,hub;I loved it and vote up and across. Here's to so many more for us both to share on here.

      Eddy.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Awww! :) I had a jack russell called Tess, but unfortunately she died earlier this year, she was fourteen though, so she'd at least lived a good life.

    • Highland Terrier profile image

      Highland Terrier 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Lil is the jack russell. Max is the westie, he is a holy terror who I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw him. Lil is just one of those dogs that it is easy to love.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Lisa, identifying ducks can be a bit of a challenge, especially when you've got a group of females together, because they all look mostly the same. I wouldn't mind coming to the US someday and checking out some of the ducks you've got over there. Thanks for stopping by, appreciate it.

    • lisa42 profile image

      lisa42 4 years ago from Sacramento

      Great information. I'm not very good at identifying ducks other than mallards, so this was fun to read. I don't think we have all of these in the US, but the next time I'm in the UK, I'll be ready to identify all the ducks I see!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Highland Terrier, glad you liked it. I like your profile picture by the way, I'm assuming that they're yours, what are their names?

    • Highland Terrier profile image

      Highland Terrier 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Absolutely beautiful. Very interesting and informative and such lovely birds. The photos are just amazing.

      Voted up across the board.

      This is one of those article that you just have to keep and read from time to time.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Bill, I can't understand why they seem to get such a bad rep, I think they're fascinating personally. I'm working the latest one right now, so watch this space. Thanks for visiting Bill.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I've always thought that ducks have gotten a bad rap over the years. Whenever there is talk of birds with beautiful colors, ducks are never mentioned. In truth, there are some very beautiful ducks, as your pictures clearly show. I love this series of yours; keep them coming.