Red-breasted Merganser

The Red-breasted Merganser is part of the sawbill family, so called because of their long, serrated bills, used for catching fish, which doesn't make them popular with fishermen. It is the fastest duck ever recorded, attaining a top airspeed of 100mph while being pursued by an aeroplane! It is most commonly spotted around the coast in winter, often forming flocks of several hundred, though it can also be found in shallow bays, inlets or estuaries.

Red-breasted Mergansers are long bodied diving ducks. They sit low in the water and have a very distinctive, elegant profile. The male has a green head with a 'just out of bed' spiky crest, a grey and white body, a spotted chestnut breast, and a white collar. The female has a reddish head merging with her brown-grey neck. Both have long, thin, red bills with serrated edges, orange legs, red eyes and white underparts. The key to separating them from Goosanders is that the neck and breast colours 'merge' rather than having an obvious line between. In flight, they have a prominent white lower wing panel and fly at an angle with their head higher than their feet. Mergansers are usually silent, only making a harsh "kar-r-r" call when displaying or nesting.

When feeding, they swim low in the water, regularly dipping their head below the surface before diving to chase fish. They sometimes hunt cooperatively in a line to drive fish into shallow water so they are easier to catch and their serrated bill helps them grip the slippery fish. Mergansers eat young salmon, trout, perch, herring, cod, eels, and also crabs and shrimps. They need to eat 15--20 fish per day. This has brought them into conflict with anglers, with birds being illegally killed to protect fish stocks, despite no evidence that Mergansers have an impact on fish numbers.

Merganser courtship starts in winter with bowing, stretching, and curtsying displays. Despite pairing up in winter, the Red-breasted Merganser breeds quite late in the year, laying their large clutch of 8-10 eggs in May or June. The nest is a depression in the ground amongst vegetation near water and lined with down. Like many ducks, the male deserts the female while she sits on the eggs. The eggs hatch after 31 days and the youngsters can feed themselves almost immediately. The youngsters will often come together with other broods to form large ‘creches’ that are looked after by a single female called an 'auntie'. Mum often leaves her young once they are in an auntie's care. The youngsters become fully independent 60 days later when they can fly. The parents do their moult between July and September and are flightless for 1 month, the males moulting first.

Red-Breasted Mergansers are mainly resident in Britain with a few others coming here in the winter from farther north. About 3,000 pairs breed here and up to 9,000 can overwinter. As numbers are falling, they have recently been added to the Red list.

Their Latin name is 'mergus serrator' from 'mergere' which means 'to dive', hence a diving duck, and 'serrator' is a 'sawyer' from the Latin 'serra' to 'saw'. The English name Merganser is also derived from 'mergus'.


The Scaup is a diving duck that can often form large 'rafts' on the open sea that can number in the thousands. Sometimes they are called the Greater Scaup to distinguish it from the Lesser Scaup found in America. They are mainly found in winter on northern coastal waters and are rarely seen on land.

Scaups are smaller than a Mallard and have a rounded looking head. The male’s is black, and he has a black breast and tail, white sides, and a grey back - looking a bit like a Tufted Duck with a grey back. His bill is grey-blue with a tiny black tip. The female’s head is brown with a large pale patch at the base of her dark bill and her body is grey-brown. In flight, there is a broad white wing bar running the length of the wing. Scaups hardly make a sound except for a dove-like call during courtship. The female Tufted Duck in moult can often look like a female Scaup with a similar white ring round the base of its bill, though this is much smaller than an actual Scaup's.

They feed on a variety of food, including shellfish, cockles and mussels, which they pick off the seabed. Owing to the Scaup's webbed feet and weight, it can dive up to 6 metres (20 ft) and stay submerged for up to a minute, allowing it to reach food sources that are unobtainable to other diving ducks. Curiously, it mostly feeds at night.

The Scaups we see in Britain breed in Iceland and the northern coasts of the Scandinavian peninsula. They begin breeding at the age of two, but start building nests in their first year, for a bit of practice. Their courtship is complex and results in the formation of monogamous pairs. They nest close to each other in large colonies, usually on the ground, in grass or rushes, near water. The nest is a shallow depression made by the female and lined with her own down into which she lays her 6-9 olive-buff coloured eggs that hatch after 26 days. The male, like many ducks, abandons the female and leaves her to do all the incubation and chick rearing on her own. Soon after hatching, the down-covered youngsters can follow their mum in her search for food and can feed themselves. They remain with mum until they can fly 40 days later but often stay together for longer. Scaups do their moult between September and November when they are flightless for 4 weeks.

Scaups rarely nest in Britain, with less than 5 pairs ever recorded. They move south in August, with 7,000 getting here by October and staying until March. With such small numbers, sadly, the Scaup is Red Listed and also Specially Protected as the majority are concentrated in relatively few places here during winter, making them vulnerable to pollution like oil spills.

Their Latin name is 'aythya marila' where 'aythya' comes from the Ancient Greek 'aithuia' which refers to a seabird mentioned by Aristotle and 'marila' is from the Greek word for 'charcoal embers' - a reference to its grey back.


The Pochard is a dozy diving duck that seems to spend a lot of time asleep. This is because it mainly feeds at night. They are most often seen in small groups, usually with more males than females.

Slightly smaller than a Mallard, the male is pale grey with a rust head, black breast and tail. The female is a dull brown with a dark crown and blotchy cheeks from too much sleep. They have a pale grey stripe on their wings which is easily visible when they are flying. The Pochard patters along the surface of the water to take off and flaps its wings vigorously as they appear a bit small for its body, giving it a dumpy appearance. They are usually silent except when courting. The male makes a wheezing "wha-oo" call when he spots a lady he likes. They moult between June and October, the male starting first, and are flightless for 4 weeks. The male goes into 'eclipse' plumage which is a mottled grey-brown just like the female. This helps to camouflage him from predators while he can't fly.

Pochards dive up to 3m to feed on aquatic plants like stonewort and sedges. They also eat water snails, small fish, tadpoles and other aquatic insects. The males feed in deeper water than the females to show how macho they are.

Nesting begins in April. The female makes a shallow cup nest of stems and other material, including her own feathers, close to water or amongst reeds. She incubates the 8-10 eggs alone and they hatch after 25 days. The youngsters can feed themselves soon after hatching and are independent before they can fly. Groups of youngsters will often come together for a sleepover.

Pochards mainly migrate. The autumn migration takes place in September and October when up to 40,000 birds come here from Scandinavia and Russia to spend the winter. There are only about 600 resident pairs that breed in Britain. Pochards are on the 'Red List' as their numbers have been declining. Their Latin name is 'aythya ferina' which comes from the Greek 'aithuia' for some sort of ancient seabird and the Latin 'ferina' meaning 'wild game'.


The grey-suited Gadwall is the boring accountant of the duck world. It was introduced in around 1850. Why anyone would want to introduce such a dull duck is mystifying. It is a dabbling duck and can be found on lakes mainly in southern and eastern parts of Britain.

Gadwalls are a little smaller than Mallards. The male Gadwall has a finely marked grey body, an obvious black rear end and a black beak. The female is more mottled with some brown fringing on her feathers and she has an orange beak as though she is wearing lipstick. They both have a square white patch on their inner wing, which is especially visible when flying. They are generally silent. The male only making a deep rasping nasal "angh" croak when flying. The female occasionally makes a gentle quack. Like many other ducks, they are flightless for 4 weeks during their moult.

They are boring vegetarians, eating mainly water plants like pondweed and rushes. They can sometimes be seen following Coots and Mute Swans around to grab some waterweed the Coot or Swan has pulled up from below the water.

Gadwall nest on the ground next to lakes or on small islands. They build their nest in dense vegetation, often close to terns or gulls as these will chase away would be predators. They make the nest in a hollow from grasses and their own feathers. Like the Mallard, the male Gadwall leaves the female all on her own to sit on the eggs while he goes to talk about tax with other males. The 8-12 eggs hatch after 24 days. The youngsters can feed themselves soon after hatching and are looked after by mum. They can fly and become independent after 45 days.

The Gadwall is resident in Britain with 1,200 nesting pairs swelling to 25,000 in winter, as birds arrive from northern Europe and Iceland. The oldest ringed Gadwall lived to be 23 years old as he was very good at budgeting. With the low numbers, the Gadwall is an Amber List species. Their Latin name is 'anas strepera' where 'anas' means 'duck' and 'strepera' means 'noisy', which they aren't. Typical accountants, trying to make themselves sound grander than they are.


The problem with Kingfishers is they are always shown big in books when in fact they are tiny and very hard to spot! You often just catch a glimpse of the gorgeous electric blue flash as they race past like a speeding bullet. Blink and you have missed them. When perched, a lot of the blue is hidden and they blend in as a small reddish brown bird against a brown background. A bit like a dead leaf. They are best found along the edge of fresh water like slow-moving rivers, ponds and lakes especially where there are deep banks to make nest tunnels. Yes, they tunnel!

The Kingfisher is the size of a sparrow (which is not very big) with a large head and long dagger like bill. They have a turquoise crown, back, and wings, brown-orange underparts, and an electric blue rump (the vivid blueness is because of the feathers not pigmentation). There are white patches behind the ears and on the neck and their legs are orange. The male and female are identical except that the male has an all black bill while the female has a bit of lipstick orange on the lower edge so the youngsters can tell them apart. Their flight is low and bullet-straight over water. The two best ways to spot a Kingfisher are either from the sudden 'plop' as they dive into the water, or from their call. During flight and take-off they give a short whistled "svee" with short "svit" notes a bit like short blasts on a referee's whistle.

Kingfishers hunt by plunge diving from branches or reeds overhanging a river or pool, capturing small fish like sticklebacks, bullheads, loaches, and minnows. They will also eat aquatic insects. They often beat the fish against a branch before swallowing it head first. A few times each day, they sick up a small greyish pellet containing fish bones and other indigestible remains. Kingfishers have to eat about 60% of their bodyweight each day, which makes them highly territorial - controlling up to a mile of riverbank. If another kingfisher enters the territory, both birds display from perches, and fights may occur. Each bird will try to grab the other's beak and hold it underwater until it gives in. Kingfishers moult gradually over the summer so can always fly and hunt for food.

During February and March, the Kingfisher looks for a mate. The courtship display involves high-speed chases up and down the river and lots of mutual feeding. The happy couple then build a nest chamber at the end of a tunnel in a suitable riverbank, usually not far above the waterline. They don't lay the first eggs until April as it can take a while to dig a tunnel. The 6-7 eggs are incubated by both parents and hatch after 19 days. Both parents then feed the chicks and work to control the large breeding territory they need to find enough food. With fish remains, chick poo, and being underground, the nest becomes very smelly! The youngsters can fly after 27 days and are quickly independent as they want to get as far away from the stinky nest as possible. The young Kingfishers will disperse to their own territories, but these are generally not too far away. Mum and dad will often have a second brood.

The Kingfisher is a resident, short distance migrant with some moving down stream to coastal estuaries in winter where there is less chance of the water freezing. Their numbers can crash in harsh winters when they can't get through the frozen water to feed. The Kingfisher, depending on small fish, is very susceptible to water pollution, in fact they are good indicators of the health of a river. The highest densities of breeding birds are found in habitats where there is clear, clean water. The nasty Victorians killed lots of Kingfishers as they liked them stuffed in display cases and to put the blue feathers in their hats.

Their Latin name is 'alcedo atthis' where 'alcedo' means 'kingfisher' derived from the Greek 'halcyon'. 'Atthis' was a beautiful young woman from Lesbos a long, long time ago. I wonder if she had blue hair?

Tufted Duck

The Tufted Duck is our most widespread diving duck. It is smaller than a Mallard. The male is black with white sides and has a black drooping crest. The female is brown with pale brown sides. Both male and female have a light blue bill with a black tip, and yellow eyes. The female sometimes has white round the base of the bill which can make her look, confusingly, a bit like another duck called a Scaup. In flight there is an obvious white stripe that runs the length of the wing. During their moult, from June to October, they are flightless for 3-4 weeks and the male looks similar to the female. Male Tufted Ducks are generally silent while the female has a harsh rasping, "karr!" Another nagging lady duck.

The Tufted Duck dives with a distinctive jump. They feed on water plants, insects, shrimps, and fresh-water mussels (especially the zebra mussel) found at the bottom of lakes. They can dive to depths of 7m or more, which is some distance considering the size of the duck. Their feet are placed further back on their bodies, to help with swimming and diving, which makes walking on land difficult, so sensibly they don't.

The few noises a male Tufted Duck does make are bubbling giggles to attract a female in late winter or early spring. The pair then settle down to nesting in May at a suitable reservoir, lake, or gravel pit. They tend to avoid deep water unless it has shallow margins. The female builds a nest out of grasses lined with her down. Tufted Ducks will often nest in colonies so the ladies can have a good gas and bitch about their men as, like the Mallard, the male Tufted Duck leaves the area once child rearing starts and has little to do with it. The 8-11 eggs hatch after 25 days and the youngsters feed themselves on midge larvae. They can fly 45 days later. The female often leaves her young before then, so neither mum nor dad are the best of parents.

There are about 20,000 breeding pairs in Britain which swell to 120,000 in winter with ducks from Northern Europe, forming large flocks outside of the breeding season. Tufted Ducks are widespread in Britain though scarcer in Wales as, being diving ducks, they don't like welsh cakes or lava bread.

The Latin name is 'aythya fuligula' from the Greek 'aithuia' an unidentified seabird mentioned by Aristotle and the Latin 'fuligo' for 'soot' and 'gula' for 'throat'. So unidentified seabird with a sooty throat. We call them Tufties.


Our most familiar duck and the most widespread duck in the world. The Mallard is the ancestor of the white farm duck. It has been domesticated for over 2000 years and has been eaten for food since ancient times. It is found on lakes, ponds, slow flowing rivers, reservoirs, marshes, just about anywhere with a bit of water and people with bread.

The male 'drake' is the more colourful. He has a dark green head, mainly grey body with black curly upper tail feathers, a white neck ring, purple brown breast, and yellow bill. The female is brown with darker mottling, dark brown crown, dark eye stripe, pale breast, and orange bill. Her colouration is to make her well camouflaged when rearing young. Young Mallards initially look like mum as they need to hide too. Both male and female have an iridescent blue square edged with white on their wings, which is useful to tell them apart from other ducks (Teal have a green one and Gadwall have a white one). In flight, the dark blue on the wing is easy to see together with two parallel white stripes. A Mallard can take off straight out of the water which is good for a quick escape or to grab a crust. Their call is the familiar "quack!" The male's call is more gentle while the female's is harsh and nagging to show she is boss.

The Mallard is omnivorous and very flexible in its choice of food. It will eat vegetation on water and land, insects, small fish and bread. It gets much of its food on or near the surface of the water so is called a 'dabbling duck' as opposed to the Tufted Duck which is a 'diving duck'.

Mallards usually form pairs in October and November, and stay together over winter until the female lays eggs at the start of the nesting season, which is around the beginning of March. At this time she is left by the male who joins up with other males for a big bachelor party to await the moulting period, which begins in June. Mallards are flightless for 4-5 weeks while they moult and the male resembles the camouflaged female except he keeps his yellow bill.

Their nest is a shallow depression ringed with grass, reeds or twigs and hidden amongst vegetation. The lonely female incubates the 9-13 eggs which hatch after 27 days and the ducklings can swim, dive and feed themselves within a day. The youngsters become independent after 50 days. There is usually only one brood. The males you see hanging around females with chicks are usually hopeful singles who will step in if the brood fails and the female decides to try for a second one.

There are 100,000 breeding pairs in Britain, but this increases to over 700,000 individuals in winter as many North European Mallards come here as our bread is better. The Mallard is protected during the breeding season but at other times can still be hunted, although not a lot of duck shooting goes on now. The oldest ringed Mallard lived to be 29 years old and preferred white to brown bread.

The Latin name is 'anas platyrhynchos' which comes from the Latin 'anas' for 'duck' and the Greek 'platyrhynchos' for 'broad-billed' (from 'platys' broad and 'rhunkhos' bill). The English name Mallard originally referred to any wild drake. It came from the old French 'mallart' for 'wild drake' (wild male).

Mute Swan

The Mute Swan is one of our largest birds and has been protected by royal decree since 1387, which is why they always look so regal. Mute Swans have been around for a long time with fossils found in East Anglia dating back 6,000 years. They only hiss when they are not amused (like Queen Victoria), otherwise they are silent and hence the name 'mute'.

The Mute Swan is all white with an orange bill that has a prominent black bump at the base. They have an S-shaped neck, downward tilted head, and a pointed tail which is more obvious when they are upended (other swan's tails, like the Whooper, are not so pointed). Their wings give a distinctive whistle in flight. Mute Swans can take off or land on the ground but need a good amount of clear space to get airborne, which is why they more often take off and land on water. The young, ugly duckling, cygnets are a browny grey and only become fully white after a year.

They mainly feed during the day in shallow water, slow rivers, canals, or brackish (salty) water. Their major food is aquatic plants and other riverside vegetation. With their long necks, they can reach a metre below water to get to the plants the other ducks can't reach. They will also eat insects and snails.

Mute Swans start breeding after 3-4 years. The female swan is known as a 'pen' and the male is a 'cob'. They often pair for life. Both birds help make the large 4 metre wide nest which is constructed from rushes and reeds on a bank or island. The pen lays 5-8 eggs which hatch after 36 days. Both parents are involved in bringing up the kids. Dad will guard the nest while mum leaves to feed, but only mum incubates the eggs. They are very territorial while nesting, so keep away if you don't want to be hissed at or pecked! Despite being big, it is a complete fib that a swan can break your arm. Both parents are devoted to their young cygnets who can swim soon after hatching. They give them rides on their backs to protect them from pike and other predators - and because it looks cute. The youngsters can eventually fly after 120-150 days and may stay with mum and dad for their first winter.

The Mute Swan is generally resident, though some move short distances in winter flocks. There are 75,000 in Britain. In the past, swans have suffered lead poisoning from fishing weights, but these are now banned and numbers are recovering. Their Latin name is 'cygnus olor' where both 'cygnus' and 'olor' mean 'swan' just in case you didn't get the royal message.