Monday, 12 December 2011

Nice weather for ducks

Rushy marshland now frames the river north of the village, where there are usually grazing meadows. Weeks of rain and snow, gales and floods have drowned the land. Every fresh downpour refills the usually temporary pools, and damp, deep-green flushes are now wide, rush-lined lochans.

It was, as they say, nice weather for ducks again this morning, with heavy overnight rain and lowering clouds stalling the dawn until nearly 9am. And the ducks have proved it by taking up residence, albeit temporarily, in one of the new ponds-that-used-to-be-field. Today I counted eight teal and four mallard, gleefully gliding about on the mirror-still water, whistling and quacking like a pack of noisy children on an icy pond. But the shy, dainty teal are masters of concealment, and as soon as they clocked me they gracefully danced for cover behind the clumps of soft rush that fringe the pools.

Before they melted into the tawny background I had a chance to look at them through my binoculars. They are tiny in comparison with the mallard - about half the size - and are our smallest duck. I was too far away (or too short-sighted) to make out their Zorro-like green eye mask, but the buttery yellow diamond at the base of their tails shone out unmistakeably in the low winter sunshine.

Most of the teal we see at this time of year are refugees from Iceland and northern Europe. In winter teal feed mostly on grass seeds, often in shallow pools and lakes, so it's not surprising that they move south to avoid the freezing weather that would lock up their food source. Some do stay here all year round, breeding in wild, undisturbed wetlands. Scotland is home to about 2000 pairs, at the last count. At present they're not doing too badly; though hotter, drier summers, predicted through climate change, and losses of wetland habitat through agricultural intensification, could jeopardise that. If  we want to hold on to these lovely, ballerina birds we need to make sure it continues to be nice weather for ducks.

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