Tag Archives: Duck

Duck tales

Last weekend Rob S. found a stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond.

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Garganey (Anas querquedula)

It was a rather incongruous sight on the most urban and densely-visited of our patch-ponds, but the behaviour was all Garganey: highly skittish, and fearful, with no nice overhanging vegetation to hide under and bullied by just about everything else on the pond. It was my first patch tick for the year; my 129th bird locally.

One week later…

Nick C. found a drake Mandarin Duck on Alexandra Lake. I had family visiting so am a little ashamed to say that I jumped in the car to get to the other side of the patch (from my house) and try and bag my 130th bird.

As soon as I approached the lake, I saw it in the distance (“Get in!” – I always think in semi-macho cliches when I see new birds. Maybe also “Back of the net!”) I quickly fired off a record shot in case I was unable to get any closer.

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Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

I shouldn’t have worried. ‘Skittish’ and ‘fearful’ are not words I would use to describe this individual. Without moving around the shore, I noticed the duck swimming in my general direction. No, not in my general direction… at me… at speed. And it did not stop.

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“I need your bread, your boots, and your motorcycle”

I didn’t have any bird seed or bread, but this duck is clearly used to being fed, and possibly being fed directly out of hand, as it had zero fear for me or any of my fellow birders. The contrast with the Garganey of last week could not have been more pronounced. But it could fly and feral populations clearly do move around. As we discussed on the shore yesterday, is there really much difference (apart from maybe a few generations) between Mandarin Duck arriving on the Patch and, say, Canada Goose, or Ring-necked Parakeet? It stayed one day, as reports as I type suggest the Mandarin has departed this morning; maybe back to the Far-East, or maybe just back to Connaught Water.

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A nice way to round off 130 birds on the Patch

 

 

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That was the year that was: ten birding moments

2018 will forever remain an important year for me. A number of sizeable personal life events occurred; most notably the fact that I have recently become a father.

It was not a massive birding year for me (perhaps due to the reasons above), although I recorded my best patch year total with 110 species and 12 brand new patch birds. There were some notable absences in my patch year list (Garden Warbler probably the most unexpected, and my first year blanking Pied Flycatcher being a disappointment. Missing out on the showy Black-tailed Godwit on Alexandra Lake was also gripping in the extreme). However, the disappointments were undoubtedly outweighed by the  highlights which, as is the want of birding bloggers, I will share here.

Best photo
As I inflict many terrible photos on the readers of this blog, I thought I ought to start with one that is a little better than my average. A bird that I wish I had seen in the UK, but actually saw where it is common; Tokyo, Japan…

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Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Top ten birding moments (in chronological order)

1. Goldeneye, Wanstead Park

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Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Not a bird likely to be on many of my patch colleague’s ‘top moments’ lists for more than one reason, including the fact that it was only seen by Nick (the finder) and me. I also have a soft-spot for the River Roding as an under-watched part of the Patch, and seeing this Patch-scarce (8th record and Patch tick for me) was a bright moment during dark February.

2.  Brown-eared Bulbul, Tokyo, Japan

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

Anyone who has been to Japan will have seen a lot of these birds. Oh boy are they everywhere! But opening the shutters of our bedroom window after our first night in Japan to find this enigmatic bird just a few metres away, surrounded by cherry blossom just seemed to be so quintessentially Japanese that the moment has stayed etched in my mind.

3. Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Hakone, Japan

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

Another common bird in Japan, but being totally alone on the fringes of a mountain village in the shadow of Mount Fuji and watching this stunning bird for several minutes feeding on a moss-covered tree was special.

4. Tree Pipit, Wanstead Flats

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Tree Pipit was not one of the 12 new birds for the Patch I saw this year, but the April bird  gave me the best views I have had of this normally fleeting passage migrant; the best views on the Patch… and, actually, probably the best views I have ever had of this bird.

5. Cuckoo, Wanstead Flats

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Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

A bittersweet birding moment in that my joy at watching this bird sail right past me and perch up around 10-15 metres away – a patch tick – was somewhat dampened by the fact that none of my fellow patch workers got to see it. I remember watching a perched cuckoo as a very young child in Northamptonshire having heard its distinctive call. Now, the call is increasingly rare in the UK, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen this bird perch up, so seeing this on the Patch was a bonus.

6. Aquatic Warbler, Biebrza Marshes, Poland

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Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola)

Poland was the only birding-specific overseas trip I undertook in 2018 and I added many ticks to my life-list. Aquatic Warbler was one of the first and most vulnerable of these ‘ticks’. Standing in a sea of reeds and then eventually hearing and seeing one, two, and then three and more of these ‘acros’ climb up a stalk and perform for us was a trip, and year, highlight for me.

7. Three-toed Woodpecker, Bialowieza, Poland

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

We connected with seven species of Woodpecker (and it could have easily been ten if we had stayed another day or so) in Poland. The toughest to find, but most rewarding to watch (for me anyway) was the Three-toed Woodpecker, as our group actually helped to locate a nest-hole for our guide, and we spent several minutes watching a female move between the trees around us. A classic life tick.

8. Red-backed Shrike, Wanstead Flats

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

Had it not been for a certain bunting (see below), RB Shrike would have been the rarest patch bird of the year for me. One of several fantastic finds by Mr N. Croft this year, I was pleased with a brief glimpse on the day it was found, but thrilled the following day when I walked around a bush and froze as it was right in front of me. A bird I also added to my French patch list the year before, even as a juvenile, this bird wins the ‘best-looking bird’ award in this list of ten for me.

9. Rustic Bunting, Wanstead Flats

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

Undoubtedly the rarest bird I have seen in four years of birding my local Patch of Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park. An outstanding find by Nick again. The photo above was taken when there were hundreds of twitchers on our local Patch at the weekend, but my first sighting of the bird had been early one morning in the golden light of autumnal dawn. At first a brief flash of a bunting, and then that moment when ID clicks into place and you know you have connected with a rare bird; what a way to get a full world life tick; right on my doorstep.

10. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wanstead Park

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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dryobates minor)

The third woodpecker on my list (in fact I added five woodpecker species to my life-list in 2018) but this one; a patch-tick rather than a life tick had to be the most satisfying. A once-resident breeder on the Patch (before my time) that is now only a scarce visitor. Finding this female in the Park was a great moment for me and was filled with the glimmer of hope that this nationally declining bird might come back and breed again locally.

People, places, and things

So, there were some great birds, but it was more than just about the birds. Sometimes I went birding in some rather unglamorous places…

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Beckton Sewage Works

But sometimes also in some beautiful places…

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Bialowieza Forest, Poland

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Hakone, Japan

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Wanstead Flats

Sometimes I had the peace of birding in solitude, but sometimes I had the pleasure of birding in the company of others.

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Biebrza Marshes, Poland

Now I am a father, my birding opportunities in 2019 might not be quite so frequent, but I look forward to clocking up a few new experiences.

 

A Big Birding Year: Epilogue (Black-headed Gull and friends)

I had an unexpected birding trip out on New Year’s Eve itself. I visited Holme Pierrepont National Watersports Centre near Nottingham. The man-made rowing lake is 2km long by about 100m wide and is a great place to see waterfowl:

Holme Pierrepont

I saw online that there had recently been sightings of Scaup duck at the rowing lake. This was would have been a tick for my photographic Big Year, so I scoured the lake carefully.

Half the lake (length-wise) was covered in a thin sheet of ice which meant I was confident I was able to accurately monitor all of the birds on this narrow waterway. And indeed I saw it – a female Scaup swimming towards me with her characteristic white feathers around the base of the bill showing well despite the distance. I started clicking away with my camera and was delighted to see she kept on swimming toward me, closer and closer. Unfortunately, as she got closer my initial enthusiasm turned to disappointment as I realised she was not a Scaup at all, but the far commoner Tufted Duck (the females occasionally have Scaup-like white patches which have undoubtedly led to mis-identification on many occasions). I stood there feeling a little silly as I had taken loads of shots of a common duck. The clues were all pretty obvious:

A – The dark bill tip is more extensive than the tiny dark ‘nail’ present on a Scaup’s bill.
B – I just thought I would point at the confusing white markings.
C – The bird has a tuft for Christ’s sake!
D – The back is too uniformly dark and brown to be Scaup

Ignore the photo-bombing gull…

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

So I didn’t add to my year-list, but I did get a couple of other shots of birds with Black-headed Gulls almost always getting into the photo…

Little Egret  (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

As it is already the 3rd of January, I should really be out and building up my year-list for 2015, but the weather is so bad I used the excuse to stay in with this one last reflection on birding in 2014.

What is a duck?

I spent yesterday photographing waterfowl at the London Wetland Centre.

I was reminded of the inductive reasoning ‘duck test’: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”.

At first glance, this is reasonable enough (for those of you having sensation of deja vous, don’t worry, it isn’t a glitch in the Matrix, it is because you might remember this previous post).

I am sure if I showed most people this photograph, they would tell me it is a duck:

Wigeon

You wouldn’t need to know that it was a Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope), to be able to correctly assume that it was a type of duck.

But what is it about a duck that tells us it is a duck?

Also, I would hazard a guess that a reasonable minority of people, if they had joined me yesterday, would have told me that this Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis):

Little Grebe

…or this Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)…

Coot

… were ducks. They are not.

So I conducted some scientifically robust polling of non-birding friends and family to try to find the answer: what is a duck?

The answers I received were remarkably similar: ducks live on (or like) water. Some people were more specific about habitat – informing me that ducks “like lakes”; whilst others gave me further clues about behaviour, telling me that ducks are not very good at flying.

Not ducks

Whilst the Coot and the Little Grebe, might confuse a few people, I would guess that fewer people would be fooled by this:

Great Crested Grebe

That was, of course, a juvenile Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus).

And I doubt (I hope!) anybody would think this Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) was a duck:

Snipe

Both of them are water birds, but they just don’t look like ducks – largely because they have completely different bills. So, it can’t just be their love of water which makes them ducks.

But then ducks do share many physical characteristics with swans and geese such as Mute swan (Cygnus olor):

Swan

…and Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus):

Egyptian Goose

But my fictional companions would be able to identify them as swans and geese respectively, largely because of their size and neck length. But here is the rub…

Swans, geese, and ducks are all part of the same scientific family: Anatidae. OK, that isn’t particularly surprising. But what if I told you that that the Egyptian Goose wasn’t really a goose at all. It belongs to a sub-family called Tadorninae, which mostly includes shelducks and other large ducks.

Ducks

So, there is a blurry area on the edges of the duck family, but there are a whole number of ducks (about 80 species) where you would have no difficulty in labelling them ducks.

But there remains great variety in this grouping.

The biggest genus is ‘Anas’, often labelled the dabbling ducks. Such as this Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata):

Shoveler

… the wigeon we saw above, and this beautiful Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)…

Pintail

…like many ducks found in the UK, the birds above are migratory, and sometimes fly thousands of miles twice a year to spend the winter in warmer climes than their homeland in the frozen north. So, some ducks fly very well (although others have almost lost the ability to fly altogether, such as the torrent ducks).

The word duck comes from the Old English verb, ducan, meaning “to duck or dive”, and it is appropriate for a large number of diving ducks, such as the Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula)…

Tufted Duck

And so, I shall end with the words of a far wittier man than me, Douglas Adams, who answered the question both accurately and amusingly:

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.”