The Pintail is an elegant long-necked duck that has, as its name suggests, a pointed 'pin' tail. It is quite a shy duck of wild places and is mainly a winter visitor from Iceland. It can be seen posing on estuaries, inland wetlands and shallow reservoirs.

Pintail male

The male has a grey body, a long pointed black tail, white breast and brown head with a white stripe running down his neck. The female is a more Mallard-like mottled brown. Both their bills are grey. In flight, they show their long neck and tail with a white trailing edge to their wings. The male's call is a soft, whistling "proop-proop", similar to that of the Teal, whereas the female has a nagging "quack".

Like all dabbling ducks, Pintails feed at the surface rather than diving for their food. They eat a variety of plants when dabbling, picking from the surface or the bottom of deeper water by up-ending. Their long neck can reach food other dabbling ducks can't. During the breeding season, they will add insects and molluscs to their diet.

Pintail female

Both sexes reach sexual maturity after one year. It is rare for Pintails to breed in Britain with fewer than 30 pairs recorded in northern Scotland. The male courts the female by swimming close to her with his head lowered and tail raised, continually whistling. If there are a group of males, they will chase the female in flight until only one is left. The pair make their nest, a hollow lined with leaves, grass and down, close to open water amongst tall grass or rushes. Mum lays 7-9 eggs from April which hatch after 22 days. Soon after hatching, the young can swim and feed themselves. They can fly 40 days later. Dad leaves mum to do all the parenting and flies off to a traditional moulting area. Mum joins him once the kids have fledged. They are both flightless while they do their 4-week moult between July and September before moving south. At best, only a third of the kids will live long enough to breed themselves as the young chicks are vulnerable to predators such as foxes, crows, magpies and birds of prey.

The small breeding population and significant 30,000 overwintering population make them Amber Listed. Their preferred habitat of shallow water is naturally susceptible to problems such as drought and might be increasingly threatened by climate change. In addition, the draining of wetlands for farming has impacted their breeding areas and the sowing of spring crops means nests are often accidentally destroyed. The oldest Pintail lived to be 27, though normally they only live for about 3 years.

Their Latin name is 'anas acuta' from the Latin 'anas' meaning 'duck' and 'acuta' from the verb 'acuere' 'to sharpen' which, like the English name, refers to its pointy tail.



Living up to its name the Shoveler has a large and distinctive shovel-like bill which it uses to feed at the surface of the water. It breeds in small numbers in Britain but is more widespread in winter.

The Shoveler is slightly smaller than a Mallard. It has a flat-looking head and swims low in the water with its large broad shovel-like bill held at an angle, giving it a distinctive profile. The male has a green head, white breast and chestnut sides, with a white patch before its black under-tail. The female is a similar mottled brown to a female Mallard but with her distinctive shovel bill. They both have bright orange legs. In flight, the wings appear set far back and there is a light blue patch on the forewings. Despite their stout appearance, Shovelers are nimble fliers. They are generally quiet, but the male has a hoarse, "took took" call when chasing off rival males.

Shoveler male

They use their broad bill to filter small creatures and seeds from water and mud by sweeping them from side to side. Inside the bill are rows of tiny spines (called 'lamellae') that trap small animals and plant remains. Groups of Shovelers may feed together by swimming in circles, stirring up the water and bring food to the surface. Typical food includes water snails, insects, seeds, bits of plant, and larvae.

About 1,000 Shovelers breed in Britain, mainly in southern and eastern England, especially around the Ouse Washes, the Humber and the North Kent Marshes. The male establishes a small territory, which he defends vigorously in the early stages of nesting. To attract a mate, he performs elaborate courtship behaviours both on the water and in the air. A dozen or more males may pursue a single female. Once paired, the happy couple build their nest in a grassy area away from open water. The nest is a shallow depression on the ground, lined with plant material and down. Mum lays 9-11 eggs in April which hatch after 22 days. The young chicks can feed themselves and are looked after by mum. Like many ducks, dad leaves mum to do all the childcare and goes off to do his flightless four-week moult. The youngsters can fly 40 days later and become independent.

Shoveler female

In winter, British breeding birds move south and are replaced by an influx of continental birds from further north. By October, most of the British birds have migrated to France and Spain and as many as 18,000 north and northeastern European Shovelers have arrived to overwinter here. Sadly, Shoveler numbers have been declining as lowland wet grassland has been drained for agriculture. The best breeding sites are now protected and managed and their numbers are expected to increase with the creation of more new wetlands. The oldest ringed Shoveler survived 20 years.

Their Latin name (since 2009) is 'spatula clypeata' where 'spatula' is Latin for a spoon and 'clypeata' means 'shield-bearing' from 'clypeus' a 'shield'. A shield-bearing spoon, referring to its broad bill, I suppose. A common name for the Shoveler is 'shovel bill' which fits it perfectly. 



The male Teal is a snazzy bird with a harlequin head. It is our smallest duck and is easy to spot in winter on reservoirs, gravel pits, and flooded meadows. Numbers increase in winter as more birds arrive from Iceland, the Baltic and Siberia, and the UK becomes home to a significant percentage of the northwest European Teal population. Collectively, a group of Teal is known as a 'spring' because of the way this very agile duck can take off suddenly and vertically as if they have jumped straight off the ground!

Teal (male)

The male has a buff and green patched head, a white stripe along a grey-looking body and a mustard yellow triangle on his black tail. The bill and legs are black. The female is a mottled brown with a white streak near the tail. Both have a bright green speculum. In flight, the Teal can resemble a wader with its twisting, turning and rapid flapping flight. Their call is a high-pitched peeping "crree".

They feed mainly at night, eating a wide variety of food that is found mostly in shallow water like pondweed, rushes, water snails, and water beetles. They also eat seeds, buttercups, grasses and worms.

Teal (female)

Teals pair up during winter and stay together for the breeding season. Nesting begins in April and the nest is a hollow lined with grass, leaves and down, built in dense vegetation close to the water's edge on wet moorland bogs or marshes. Dad deserts mum as soon as she lays the 8-11 eggs which hatch after 21 days. He goes off to join other males where they do their moult into eclipse plumage and are flightless for four weeks. Dad won't see the kids again until they reach their winter quarters. Once hatched, the young chicks can feed themselves while mum looks after them. They become fully independent 30 days later. Outside the breeding season, Teals are highly gregarious ducks and can form large flocks. By the following year, the young Teals can breed themselves.

Only about 2,000 Teals breed here, mainly in Scotland. Numbers swell to 220,000 between October and March, with birds arriving from Iceland and northern Europe. Teal numbers have declined since the 1970s. This is thought to be due to forests being planted on their traditional breeding grounds. The oldest ringed Teal lived to be 25 years old, which is ancient for such a small bird.

Their Latin name is 'anas crecca' where 'anas' is Latin for 'duck' and 'crecca' is derived from 'kricka' the Swedish name for a Teal which refers to the male's "crree" call. Similar onomatopoeic names are found in Danish 'krikand' and German 'kirckente'. The Teal gives its name to the blue-green colour 'teal'.



Wing commander Wigeon, with his yellow head stripe, is a winter visitor to our coastal marshes and inland lakes, arriving in October and leaving in March. Wigeons are social ducks and are often seen in large squadrons grazing on grass.

It is a dabbling duck that is smaller than a Mallard. The male has a chestnut head, yellow crown stripe, grey body, pale pink breast, a black pointed tail, and white wing patches which are obvious in flight or at rest. Its bill and legs are grey. The female is more mottled brown. In flight, they both show a white belly, pointed tails and narrow-looking wings. Their call is a loud whistling "whee-oo!" from which the Wigeon gets its 'whistler' nickname.

Wigeons are big veggies and very good at cropping grass with their short bills like duck-powered lawnmowers. Their favourite meal is eelgrass, but they will also eat leaves, seeds and algae. They sometimes follow other birds like swans and coots to pick up their waste food, letting them do all the hard work.

They breed in the northernmost areas of Europe and Russia between April and June. A tiny number breed in Britain (300-500) in places like the Pennines and Scotland. Wigeons are monogamous and form seasonal pairs. The nest is built on the ground on the tundra or in woodland and usually near water such as lakes, rivers, or wooded shores. It is a depression hidden under vegetation and lined with grass and a thick layer of mum's down. Mum incubates the 6-12 eggs hatch which after 24 days. The young can feed themselves, though mum keeps an eye on them while they are small chicks. They can fly at 40 days and soon become fully independent. There is usually only one brood.

Most of the 450,000 Wigeons we see here are from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia. Between 50–60% of the UK's wintering population is found at ten or fewer sites. As the UK holds 20–30% of the total European wintering population, it is considered to be of international importance. For these reasons, the Wigeon is Amber Listed. The oldest ringed Wigeon lived to be 33 years old, though the normal lifespan is not much more than 3 years.

Their Latin name is 'anas penelope' where 'anas' is the Latin for 'duck' and 'penelope' refers to a duck that was supposed to have rescued Penelope when she was thrown into the sea. Her name is derived from Ancient Greek 'pene' for 'braid' and 'ops' for 'appearance'. She made herself unattractive with braids to deter suitors while her husband Ulysses was away fighting.

A close relative to our Wigeon is the American Wigeon, also known as the 'baldpate'. Like all yanks, it is a bit flashier with a mask of green feathers around its eyes and a cream-coloured cap running from the crown of its head to its bill, giving it that bald-headed look.

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.