Winter – a time for reminiscing – of writing up notes – winter walks – log fires – rereading favourite books – And Ducks …. Winter for me is all about Ducks …..
In my teens I was a member of the local Duck Counting Team under the tutelage of Bernard King. This was in the days before WeBS. Every month during Winter saw us out counting ducks at Chew Valley Lake, Somerset.
However I never really got the hang of estimating large numbers of ducks – sometimes up into the hundreds and thousands for the more common species – I was much more at home with a small lake and ducks you could actually count.
I used to cover a small lake – well pond really, on a private estate, that in winter held a few mallard and tufted duck with a couple of pair of teal, and the odd coot and moorhen. Surrounded by Rhododendron, Birch and Larch, with Holly and Hazel understorey; and Bracken. These reliably turned up Siskin, Redpoll and Goldcrest, which I kept trying to turn into Firecrest – a bird which still eludes me to this day. Well one year it turned up a first for me – not a duck but Crossbill – during one of the years of their irruptions from the Continent – 1963 it must have been. And then there was the time I literally stumbled over a Woodcock- I don’t know who was more surprised!
But counting duck here sometimes seemed a chore and unrewarding, especially on cold damp winter mornings. However one day I was excited by a few Pochard. My interest was held particularly by a fairly nondescript brownish Duck that was with them – while very similar it clearly wasn’t a female Pochard and it didn’t seem right for a Tufted Duck. What it did have, though not that visible was white under the tail and a chestnut body with slightly darker back. My mind raced – Lesser Scaup – but on an wooded inland pond in Wiltshire – not much chance. So what then – later pouring over my bird books – we didn’t have the quality guides then that are about now just Roger Tory Peterson and the hefty tomes of British Birds by Kirkman et al and T A Coward – I thought naively Ferruginous Duck – it had to be didn’t it!
Well you can probably guess the rest of the story – I went back later with a friend – no sign of the Pochard or the Brown Duck. So no corroborating evidence. Yet it stays in my field notes as poss Ferruginous.
Now many years later we know a lot more about hybridisation in Aythya species – so more likely then that it was a Pochard x Tuftie. But I can’t help thinking about those white undertail coverts and wondering …..
But what sort of ducks should we look out for: Wigeon, Goldeneye, Pintail, and possibly even Smew on lakes, reservoirs and near the coast. And increased numbers of breeding birds – Teal, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Shoveler and Pochard, with new winter arrivals. Or perhaps a drake scaup, perhaps from Iceland, floating among the pack of tufted.
Also look out for Pink Footed Geese, Greylag and Whitefront, if not on the ground then look / listen for the large skeins that fly overhead. Whooper Swans are also arriving from their breeding grounds in Iceland – the most likely destination is Martinmere near Ormskirk, Lancashire, where more than 1,000 whooper swans create the biggest over-wintering colony in Britain. But one or more may join the small flock of about 40 that choose the Glaslyn marches near Porthmadog. Look out for their long wedge shaped bill, largely yellow with a black tip. If you’re lucky you could spot a Barnacle Goose or even a Bewick’s Swan (smaller yellow area on bill – hard to distinguish from a Whooper if it is a lone bird)
As Winter draws on some wildfowl begin their spring. Unexpected and graceful is the queer courtship of the ducks. Watch lakes and reservoirs, where the migrants court and pair before the long flight north. Goosanders and red breasted mergansers may go no farther than Scotland, but the smaller, handsome smew, is bound for its nest hole in some forest tree of Lapland or northern Russia.
Not far from home is Llanfairfechan, one of the very best places to see a range of birds like Red Throated Diver, Red Breasted Merganser, Great Crested Grebe and Common Scoter. Also present are smaller numbers of Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe, Eider, Razorbill, Goldeneye and Black Guillemot, and also a regularly wintering American Black Scoter. And huge flocks of Wigeon, Teal and Pintail.
This year – early December – we have already had the first snows of Winter – who better to describe it than Richard Jefferies, whose observations of Nature never fail to delight. This is his description of the first snowfall of Winter ….
“The smallest boughs and the tiniest twigs are coated on the upper part with a white rib of snow; for the flakes, scarcely slanting in their fall before the light air, rest on the first thing they touch; so that even the laurel leaves, which droop with the frost, are covered, and the crinkled holly-leaves hold the snow as if their spines grasped it like a claw. In the hedge the very peggles on the hawthorn bush are tipped—red fruit beneath, white snow above—and appear enlarged to twice their real size. The fields are levelled—the furrows filled and the clods hidden: a smooth white surface everywhere. Over the broad brook the branches of the trees hang low, heavily weighted, and dip their slender points in the water, black by contrast. Dark and silent, the stream flows without a ripple or a murmur against its frozen shores. But in the afternoon, when the sun shines in a cloudless sky, there floats above the current a golden vapour lit up by the rays. The sun sinks lower, and the disc becomes ruddy as it enters the mist above the horizon. Night falls, and the frost sharpens and the snow hardens on the boughs. Then in the morning as the sun rises the eastern side of the wood becomes glorified exceedingly. Each slender snow-laden branch—all the interlaced pattern of the trees—glows with an exquisite rosy light. Another day, a third, and still the beautiful snow lies everywhere.
Yet in the middle of winter we can be reminded of Spring ….
The yellowhammer is a common resident species here (West Cornwall). We usually think him an uninteresting bird on account of his phlegmatic disposition and monotonous song, but in this district, in winter, I found him curiously attractive, and among the modestly-coloured birds that were his neighbours he was certainly the most splendid. That may appear a word better suited to the golden oriole, but I am thinking of one of his aspects, as I frequently saw him, and of a miracle of the sun. Here, in winter, he congregates in small companies or flocks at the farms, and at one small farm where there was a rather better shelter than at most of the others, owing to the way the houses and outhouses and ricks were grouped together, the company of wintering yellowhammers numbered about eighty or ninety. Every evening, when there was any sun, these birds would gather on some spot—a rick or barn roof or on the dark green bushes—sheltered from the sea wind, where they could catch the last rays. Sitting motionless grouped together in such numbers they made a strangely pretty picture.
One evening, at another farm-house, I was standing out of doors talking with the farmer, when the sun came out beneath a bank of dark cloud and shone level on the slate roof of a cow-house near us. It was an old roof on which the oxidised slate had taken a soft blue-grey or dove colour—the one beautiful colour ever seen in weathered slate; and no sooner had the light fallen on it than a number of yellow-hammers flew from some other point where they had been sitting and dropped down upon this roof. They were scattered over the slates, and, sitting motionless with heads drawn in and plumage bunched out, they were like golden images of birds, as if the sun had poured a golden-coloured light into their loose feathers to make them shine.
The grey wagtail and the goldfinch, in small numbers, both beautiful birds, were wintering here, but they could not compare with those transfigured yellowhammers I had seen.
From The Land’s End: A Naturalist’s Impressions In West Cornwall, 1908 by W H Hudson
To be continued …….