Ranger Column: Celebrating the unofficial month of the duck

Ranger Column: Celebrating the unofficial month of the duck

AS LONG-TERM readers will know, January is the unofficial month of the duck – at least it appears to be from looking back over the last few years.

It’s not too surprising: it’s the perfect time to see these birds, as many species of duck will be pairing up over the winter months. So the males will be looking their best in their breeding plumage and they will be putting on displays to attract females.

Eiders are a common sight along our coast throughout the year. They nest on quieter sections of the mainland shore and on the islands of the Forth.

Like many ducks, the sexes look very dissimilar, the males being black and white with a pale green nape of the neck. The females, by contrast, are brown all over – they need this dull colouration as camouflage when they are sitting on the nest.

Both are relatively bulky (for ducks) and have a characteristic wedge-shaped head and hooked bill.

The call of the male eider is worth listening out for. Sounding something like “ah-ooh”, it’s almost as if the bird has just spotted something surprising, and maybe slightly naughty.

For a bird of its size, weighing up to 3kg, the eider can fly surprisingly quickly. In fact, it has been recorded as reaching speeds of 113 kph, making it one of the world’s fastest birds in level flight.

Duck species generally feed in two different ways: diving to take food underwater, or dabbling on or near the surface.

Eider will dive to take crustaceans and molluscs, mussels being a particular favourite; these are swallowed whole and the shells crushed in the bird’s gizzard.

However, some ducks are a little more versatile when it comes to feeding, as demonstrated by the wigeon.

This medium-sized duck is not content with dabbling but will also quite happily come out of the water and graze on grass and other plants.

They are known in some quarters as the whistling duck, since the drake makes a loud and characteristic “whew” call.

Like many species, the male wigeon is also a rather grand sight to see. He’s a mostly grey, white and black combination, but with a pink chest and chestnut head. On its crown is a distinctive creamy yellow stripe, giving it a vaguely Mohican look.

We get over 400,000 wigeon wintering in the UK, a sizeable proportion of the European population. They can be seen in both freshwater and coastal habitats.

Flocks can commonly be seen along the shoreline at Port Seton, on the boating pond at Levenhall Links and at the Tyne or Peffer estuaries.

So there you have it, a couple of species which are worth looking out for this month – there will probably be more duck updates next January.

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