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Wildfowl experts: 'It really is lovely weather for ducks'

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 21, 2014

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The prolonged spell of wild weather, battering Britain with storm after storm, means the winter of 2013/14 will live long in the memory.

Parts of the coastline have been altered forever as colossal waves reduced giant sea stacks to rubble and images of flooded streets, overrun riverbanks and weather maps buried under a blizzard of flood warning signs have become a daily staple of television news.

But out of this sopping mess has emerged a winner – the relentless rain has, as the phrase goes, been 'lovely weather for ducks'.

Some wetland nature reserves have even reported double the number of visiting ducks compared to previous years, with large numbers of swans and geese also recorded. The UK's wetlands do normally act as a kind of giant winter waterfowl hotel for many northern species who fly in to take advantage of our relatively warm, moist weather, but our recent spate of hard, cold winters had seen visiting duck numbers fall in some areas.

So far though, the winter of 2013/14 has been very mild, the UK has experienced few frosts and there's been little or no snow in most places. This has meant waterways have remained clear of ice and damp, and soggy fields have provided a smorgasbord for hungry birds.

Peter Morris, who works at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) headquarters at Slimbridge on the Severn Estuary in Gloucestershire, explains: "We're getting double the amount of ducks we had during recent colder winters – we've got nearly 5,000 Wigeon and 2,500 Teal. Birds migrate south to escape icy weather, which freezes up the water where they feed. The current lack of ice around the UK means there's less incentive for them to use up a lot of energy flying further south, so many are staying here instead."

So when conditions are just right, the UK in the winter is something of a duck heaven. A large range of species with a mind-boggling array of weird patterns and even weirder bills choose to see out the cold here rather than further north and east.

The Gulf Stream is the main reason for the duck deluge. This powerful ocean current brings us relatively warm, moist air at an unusually high latitude, meaning that the UK is the easiest place to reach for ducks from the Arctic and sub-Arctic.

Some of the easiest to see winter ducks at wetlands around the UK right now are the Wigeon, Pintail, Shoveler and Teal. The Wigeon is one of the commonest and most charismatic of our winter visitors. In good years almost half the European population touch down in the UK with the cinnamon-headed males adding their highly distinctive whistling call to the wetland soundscape.

The Pintail is arguably our most beautiful duck but 'pin' hardly does justice to the extraordinarily long, tapering central plume that passes for this bird's tail. One of the world's commonest ducks, thousands over-winter at UK coastal sites, particularly in north west England.

Even more unusual in appearance than the Pintail, the Shoveler looks like a duck designed by an over-excited toddler. At first glance the bird looks like a Mallard in fancy dress – sporting a huge, oversized comedy beak. But this beak is no joke, the giant appendage enables the Shoveler to take advantage of food that other ducks simply can't get to. For this soup spoon of a bill is used to filter seeds, plankton and other food sources from the bottom of muddy pools, meres ands waterways.

The tiny Teal is our smallest duck – usually a third the size of the ubiquitous Mallard, but, when it comes to the Teal, small means beautiful. Males boast exotic crimson and dark green velvet heads, emerald wing flashes and delicate black stomach pencilling. Luckily, tens of thousands see out the winter in the UK so you won't have to travel far to spot one.

The sight and sound of wild ducks is an unforgettable highlight of the UK winter and unlike many wildlife experiences is relatively easy to track down.

Morris explains: "You don't have to go abroad to find wetlands full of wildlife, the UK's wetlands are among the most important in the world for ducks, geese and swans. The quintessential British country scene includes ducks of many species, colours and shapes swimming on water or filling the sky. Our current wet, mild weather is perfect for them."

So, while the wet weather lasts, follow the example of the England cricket team 'down under' and make sure get out for a duck.

For more information on the WWT's UK-wide wetland reserves, visit wwt.org.uk

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