The Best in Town – a Blog about Water Birds.
This will be more or less about waterfowl, by which I mean the family Anatidae, which consists of ducks, geese and swans (and a few other species.) But beware if you want to be precise. Some ducks are quite big. Some geese and swans are quite small. The differences are not about size.
I once asked a visiting speaker, a waterfowl expert, what defined a duck as opposed to a goose or a swan. It was the question he always hoped no one would ask. There is no simple answer. Within Anatidae there is a subfamily that includes both swans and geese but shelducks and sheldgeese go together in another subfamily (and, in spite of its name, an Egyptian Goose is more of a shelduck than a goose!)
I will also, to confuse you further, include grebes; (Podicepiformes) Coots and Moorhens (Rails, more closely related to Cranes) and maybe the odd wader (Charadriiformes, a group that strangely also includes gulls.)
As it’s a blog it is not a comprehensive guide. It’s more about what I normally see and have seen this year. I won’t get too technical. I will just show you some of my pictures of birds with some of my comments. Almost all the pictures will come from Slimbridge but some come from other watery locations.
You will all recognise our common swan, known as the Mute Swan [Cygnus olor] although it does make a number of noises. It has a reddish orange bill bordered in black and the male and females are almost identical (as for all of our swans and geese.) You may see a pair on most lakes but normally only one pair per lake. They are very territorial.
Sometimes they display their wings to appear larger when sorting out territorial disputes.
The birds above, kept at Slimbridge, are unable to establish their territories. So several have to share some quite small lakes.
They are the largest birds likely to be seen in flight and their most familiar sound is the beating of their wings as they take off and fly.
Young swans are known as cygnets. [Language change is a long and complex process but cygnet and swan both come from the same original word.] They start brownish grey in colour and towards their first winter they gradually become patchy white. When they are completely white the parents see them as competition and chase them away.
Bewick’s Swans [Cygnus columbianus] are winter visitors and Slimbridge is one of the places they visit. They are smaller than Mute Swans and the bill is yellow rather than orange (and more of it is black.)
Sometimes we have a few nearly adult cygnets among the Bewick’s. They still have some grey markings particularly on their heads and their bill has a pink colouration.
Our common goose is the Greylag [Anser anser] one of several similar grey looking species. (Domesticated and farmed geese are Greylag, even the all-white ones.)
I always think their most attractive feature is their neck with its prominent feather structures.
The Canada Goose [Branta Canadensis] as its name suggests comes from the continent of North America but King James introduced some to his parks in London a few hundred years ago – and they have spread! They are now common throughout the UK. I still had a lot of difficulty finding one for a picture for this blog.
I am going to include the Hawaiian Goose [Branta sandvicensis] or Nene, even though it is not a native bird, because I see so many wandering about the site at Slimbridge. (The name, like so many bird names, comes from its call.)
Hawaiian geese became so rare on the islands of Hawaii that they are bred now at Slimbridge and some have been reintroduced to Hawaii. It’s part of the conservation work that justifies Slimbridge.
There are several different shelducks, birds that are something between geese and ducks. In the UK we have the Common Shelduck [Tadorna tadorna] a bird of seas and estuaries, seen often at Slimbridge. We just call it a Shelduck. Males and females are very similar. (Like our swans the male is a little larger with a more prominent knob on his bill.)
Our very common ducks, the only ones that ‘quack,’ are Mallard [Anas platyrhynchos.] Now that we come to ducks the male and female look different. Males have to be pretty to attract the females! (To make things difficult, female ducks of different species are very similar to each other.)
The male Mallard is easily recognized from his green head. Sometimes in sunlight it may look blue or even purple.
These pictures are taken in winter. The birds are slightly duller than the summer plumage.
Here is the female version.
Tufted Ducks [Aythya fuligula] are smaller and much less common than Mallard but still fairly widespread.
The male has a distinctive appearance. He is black with white sides and has a tuft on his head, which gives him his name.
The female is brown with lighter coloured sides and a less prominent tuft.
Winter Visiting Ducks
The Pochard [Aythya farina] is closely related to the Tufted Duck. Many of them come to the UK in the winter. Almost all of these visitors are males. (They have a long way to come from their breeding grounds in Northern Europe where the males leave the females still caring for young on the nest. By the time that the chicks have left the nest the female Pochard only has time to travel to places like Italy for her winter holiday.)
The male bird is easily recognized by his red head and white back and sides.
The female is more of a dull brown and grey and at a distance she may be sometimes confused with a female Tufted Duck. I have learned that the yellow eye-ring of the tufty is a good distinguishing feature.
My favourite duck is another winter visitor, the Pintail [Anas acuta] with a chocolate brown head and a metallic looking bill.
They can be difficult to photograph because they spend so much time up-ended with their heads underwater showing off the pointed tail that gives them their name.
Like several other ducks the female is a mottled brown. I think she is the best looking of the female ducks.
The Shoveler [Anas clypeata] is closely related to the Mallard. The male is superficially similar to the Mallard with the same green coloured head that sometimes looks blue. The obvious difference is its large, wide bill, which gives it the name. They use it to skim and sieve the water, extracting tiny animals.
The female is, not surprisingly, like a female Mallard but with the same shovel-like bill as the male Shoveler.
The Teal [Anas crecca] is our smallest visiting winter duck. The male has a very recognisable head.
Yes, the female is like a smaller female Mallard, brown and mottled.
You may see Gadwall [Anas strepera] through the year but they are not very common. They are more or less grey and brown but the male is more colourful than the female. Look for them amongst Coot where they have an interesting relationship. They let the Coot dive for food and then steal some of it from them.
The Goldeneye [Bucephala clangula] is a rare winter visitor. I managed to see this one at the Cotswold Water Park but it swam away fast when it saw me.
Here is a better picture of a captive bird at Slimbridge.
The female does not have the white sides or cheek marking but she does have the golden eye.
Collections like Slimbridge sometimes fail to keep their birds captive. Birds can escape. Then they can breed and multiply. There are examples of localized bird populations large enough to be significant and when they get large enough they spread.
The Forest of Dean is now home to hundreds of Mandarin ducks. The trees provide ideal nesting locations. The areas around Slimbridge and the neighbouring village of Frampton have their flock of Barnacle Geese all year round.
And the Cotswold Water Park has its Red Crested Pochard [Netta rufina.] They used to frequent one lake in large numbers but they are spreading and smaller numbers are seen over a wider area. This pair were among a flock of about fifty but they were not tempted to come near and pose for me.
On the water, you may think that grebes are similar to ducks. They dive and swim well under water.
These are Great Crested Grebes [Podiceps cristatus].
Their young, sometimes carried on the backs of the parents, are stripy in appearance.
The black Coot [Fulica atra] with its white bill, is widespread wherever there is water and is often seen behaving much like a duck.
The related Moorhen [Gallinula chloropus] is generally seen by water but is much less seen actually on it.
I used to think that Coots and Moorhens were similar – one had a white bill and one had a red bill. But the Moorhen is much more colourful. It is not really black. has dark blue and brown areas, a white stripe and even some yellow on its red bill.
My last bird here is often seen at Slimbridge among the waterfowl. Sometimes just one Lapwing [Vanellus vanellus] like this comes almost up to the windows of the Peng Observatory. It has an impressive crest and colourful feathers on its back.
It is usually a very gregarious bird. At any hint of danger hundreds – or even thousands – rise into the sky.
A Diversion about Feet
I am sure you know about webbed feet for ducks, geese and swans. The Mute Swan is a good example. Its dark grey feet are huge.
You will have noticed in the early picture of displaying swans that the feet are sometimes out of the water. It is quite common to see a swan glide past with one dark foot resting on its back!
Birds’ feet are often colourful and the Greylag has pink feet (sometimes more like orange.)
[There is also a Pink-footed Goose. You can’t tell it from a Greylag by the colour of its feet! You have to look at the bill colour.]
Rails are not the same as ducks. They don’t need to be powerful swimmers but they do often walk on marshy vegetation and things like water-lily pads. They need to spread their weight for stability so they have long toes without webbing. Here are the feet of Coot and Moorhen.
The Nene is related to the Canada Goose but it is no longer quite so much a wetland bird. On the Hawaiian islands it lives on volcanic lava fields. It feet are now only partly webbed.
Finally, you probably won’t see the feet of a grebe because they stay on the water. I don’t think I have ever seen one on land, except on its nest. The birds are so well designed for water, with feet set back in the body, that they find walking difficult.
… So who was ‘the Best in Town?’ It was, of course the Ugly Duckling immortalized in the fairy tale of Hans Christian Andersen, and the words come from the song, which I associate with Danny Kaye. Here are some of the words.
There once was an ugly duckling; With feathers all stubby and brown; And the other birds in so many words said; Get out of town, get out, get out, get out of town.
All through the wintertime he hid himself away; Ashamed to show his face, afraid of what others might say; All through the winter in his lonely clump of wheat; Till a flock of swans spied him there and very soon agreed:-
“You’re a very fine swan indeed.” “Swan? Me, a swan?” “ Go on, you’re a swan.” “Take a look at yourself in the lake and you’ll see.” And he looked and he saw and he said, “It’s me, I am a swan, whee.”
“I’m not such an ugly duckling; No feathers all stubby and brown.” For in fact these birds in so many words said; ‘The best in town, the best, the best, the best in town.’
(OK, I’ve missed out Barnacle Goose, Egyptian Goose, Muscovy Duck, Wigeon and Mandarin.)