The glory of ducks

Mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata). Picture: Rupert Evershed

Mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata). Picture: Rupert Evershed - Credit: Archant

Winter is inescapably grey. Parking on top of the Maltings car park in St Albans today my usually panoramic view of the town and fields beyond is greatly reduced. Layers of mist – shades of grey – have walled the horizon and closed in my visual world. Drops of rain on my face give the greyness an invasive quality, threatening to absorb me into the landscape to become just another grey shape in a grey world. Only a few hours after sunrise and it feels as if dawn has faltered or that dusk is already upon us.

Grey is an 'achromatic' colour - literally a 'colour without colour' and is most often associated with neutrality, conformity, boredom, uncertainty, old age, indifference and modesty. Just one per cent of people in a survey chose grey as their favourite colour. It is no surprise then that the 'greyness' of winter can often translate as gloom, subduing not just our view but also our mood.

It is perhaps that much more miraculous that in the very gloomiest, greyest, wettest of places we should find some of nature's most brilliant and resplendent colours. Floating on murky waters, weaving through tangled weeds and paddling through gloopy mud, these creatures seem to practically rejoice in greyness. I am of course talking about ducks!

Ducks are one of those groups of birds that often get lumped together as a singular, non-descript ass - perhaps a bit like 'seagulls'. On closer inspection however the world of ducks explodes in variety far beyond our humble and familiar Mallard duck. Around 40 different species of duck regularly occur in the UK and include dabbling ducks that feed mainly on the surface of the water, diving ducks that feed below it and sea ducks that, whilst usually found on the coast, can also appear on inland water-bodies in winter.

In contrast to so much of our brown British birdlife, ducks, and in particular the drakes, are flamboyantly decorated, adorned with every possible feathered detail, falcation and vermiculation. Colours contrast and range from subtle and beautiful sheens to outright shows of bold and joyous colour. There is nothing achromatic or grey about ducks!

One of the best ways of enjoying ducks at this time of year is to find a nature reserve with open water and hides - perhaps the Wildlife Trust's reserves at Amwell near Hertford or Stocker's Lake near Rickmansworth, both about a 25 minute drive from St Albans. Here you can shelter from the elements in a hide and enjoy the vibrancy of colour that ducks bring to the winter scene. If grey days don't offer warmth and sunshine they do often offer the perfect light for viewing ducks - the low cloud cover freeing our eyes from the colour-neutralizing glare of dazzle and reflection

Diving male Tufted Ducks are joined by Goldeneye and, as each surfaces, their heads, sheened with purple for the former and green for the latter, are jeweled with little water droplets. Further out, a phalanx of Shovelers 'pin-wheel' on the surface, their chestnut sides contrasting with their white breast and green heads as their circular motions stir up food to sift through their shovel bills. Dabbling at the muddy margins male Wigeon defy the drabness of their surroundings, bring pinky-chestnut hues emblazoned with a bold yellow flash on their foreheads. Similarly, male Teal give the colour its name both in their ornate head-stripe and flash of blue-green on their wings in flight.

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Watching all these ducks together and it doesn't take long to realize that not only do they bring a welcome splash of colour to the scene but also a buoyancy that goes far beyond their physical bobbing on the water. Flotillas of ducks are constantly surrounded by an effervescence of energy - a constant ducking, dabbling, diving, splashing all accompanied by soft quacks, whistles and contact notes. Nothing seems to dampen their spirits and when they take to flight the cold grey skies are warmed and brightened with their calls and whirring wing beats.

I hope you get to revel in the glory of ducks on a grey day this winter - for Christmas and New Year will be all the more merry for it. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!