Sunday, 9 December 2012

An Intriguing Duck at Welney

Although Welney is most famous for its swans, it is also a good place for seeing and photographing ducks at close quarters. Also, when the water is not too high, there are often quite a few species of wader to be seen from the hides. On this occasion the early winter rains had swollen the water levels to such an extent that the only visible land was a narrow spit jutting out into the floods. However, even this was sufficient to hold some roosting Redshank, Snipe and about 100 Black-tailed Godwits. The waders were too far away to photograph , but whenever a Marsh Harrier floated past, the godwits would take to the air in a tight flock for security and would perform a flypast. Note the conspicuous wing bars which separate them from Bar-tailed Godwits.

There are always hundreds of duck in front of the observatory, but of very few species primarily just Mallard and Pochard. Although other species such as Tufted Duck and Teal are present on the reserve they tend to keep way from the hides and feeding areas. Mallard, a very common duck which most of us take for granted, has a very colourful plumage, especially the head which is an iridescent green and changes colour depending on the direction of the light.

Pochard are also very showy, especially in these superb light conditions, which not only illuminate the bird but also casts a deep blue glow on the watery background. The males as shown in the first two photos are immaculate with their brown head, piercing red eye, black breast and silvery grey mantle.

The females, as usual, are far more sombre so that they are less conspicuous when they are sitting on the nest. Note on both sexes the large black tip to the bill, which you will need to remember later.

So what is the duck of intrigue? Well, for some days now the WWT website has been stating that there was a female Ferruginous Duck in front of the observatory. Well, although my main mission was to photograph the swans, the addition of a relatively rare Ferruginous Duck would have been a bonus. What was confusing, however, was that by the time I arrived at the reserve, the bird was now being reported as a 1st winter male.

The duck was lurking in some reeds in front of the southern wing hide, but was out of view for most of the time. It was necessary, therefore, to settle down and wait for the ducks along the bank and in the reed bed to be disturbed. I didn't have to wait long before a Marsh Harrier wafted across causing great alarm amongst the ducks resulting in those on the bank and in the reed bed swimming out in front of the observatory. Now was my chance.

Ferruginous Ducks are like female Tufted Ducks but are more chestnut with a smooth profile head and conspicuous white under-tail coverts. This one certainly looked the part, but what was the sex?

Once I got home I had a good look through the photos to find some that showed the eye-colour well, which would be white for a male and brown for a female. What I noticed was that many of them showed the duck as having white eye-lids with a brown eye. The bird was therefore as first reported, a female. Just to be sure I sent a photo to Barry Reed for confirmation. Barry replied by saying that if the bird was a Ferruginous Duck it would indeed be a female, but the extensive black tip strongly suggests that this is a Ferruginous x Pochard hybrid. This is absolutely correct as pure Ferruginous Ducks have a minute black tip to the bill. Also, as it is a hybrid, sexing by eye colour goes out of the window. I passed the information and the photo to WWT Welney which have subsequently amended their records, and my shot of a pure Ferruginous Duck will have to wait for another date.

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