Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Rainy Days and Ducks

A visit to the reserve this morning turned into quite a brief event. Heavy grey skies and a near gale force and cold wind were bad enough but when bouts of heavy rain started being driven in on the wind, that was enough for me - was I really sunbathing on the patio a few weeks ago?
You have to feel for what hirundines are already here at the moment, they depend on flying insects for food and they weren't going to be finding many of them today, there weren't even a few mosquitoes hovering over my garden pond. And I felt particularly sorry for the few Lapwings that are nesting on the reserve, watching them trying to cover and stay on, their nests on the ground in the driving rain and wind, wasn't nice. Something else I also noted, was the Coot's nest that I pictured in a post a few days ago with 5-6 eggs, today it had no eggs. Clearly one of the few pest species on the reserve, probably crows, had helped themselves. Crows and hedgehogs are two of the worst culprits when it comes to stealing birds eggs on the marsh but as this nest was surrounded by water, I suspect it was crows this time - they might regret it!

One of the features of the marshes at this time of the year, and the reserve is a good example, are the gathering of small to good-sized groups of Shelduck. These colourful and almost goose-like ducks, form what could be classed as "parliaments" during April whereby both sexes of the ducks gather at regular sites on the marsh prior to actually nesting and to the human mind seem to be generally discussing things among themselves. During these discussions you will also see males occasionally having small disputes between each other as they contest for a particular female's attentions. On the reserve the old salt workings mounds seem to be the favourite place for these gatherings, probably due their height above ground and the fact that they contain many rabbit burrows. Rabbit burrows are one of several types of nesting places that these ducks will use, although surprisingly it isn't often at the site where they first congregate, they will move away to nest, in a rabbit burrow, under a dense bramble bush, under the base of an old building, etc. So if you are out on the marshes and you see these gatherings of Shelduck at this time of year, its simply them discussing who's going to go with who and when the first eggs will be laid - that sort of thing. I'm always amused when these birds get up and fly away if you happen to disturb them, their call notes sound as if they're "chuckling" among themselves.

The ducklings of the Shelduck are quite pretty, being little balls of white down with dark stripes and those birds that nest near to the sea will normally make getting the ducklings to the safety of the sea, as their first priority.
Having achieved all that, the next major issue in the Shelduck's annual timetable, is the moult. Most Shelduck from western Europe fly to Heligoland Bight and form large flocks there as they rest through their moult period. It often results in one seeing, on the sea close to their nesting sites, large flocks of non-flying ducklings of all sizes and ages, being shepherded around by just a couple of adult "foster mother" birds who have stayed behind.

It is certainly one of the most colourful and stand-out ducks of the marshes and is fortunate in that it still remains on the list of birds that are protected at all times, i.e. it cannot be legally shot, although I am advised that it does not have a very agreeable flavour anyway.

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