Every British birdwatcher has a favourite duck. Anyone who has seen Spring/Autumnwatch with Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games arguing about whether the drake Pintail or drake Smew is the prettiest and most elegant of all the ducks, and any young birdwatcher who has ever pored over the pages of their new bird book knows it. In Britain they are some of our most colourful species, and a lot of the most colourful species are easy for even a beginner to see. When I was young my favourite was the drake Tufted Duck, with his striking black-and-white plumage, purple-sheened head and adorable tuft on the back of his head. Then for ages I loved the Smew. Now my favourite is another sawbill-the fantastic Red-breasted Merganser. I saw a sizeable flock of them a few weeks ago and felt inspired to write about them! Especially as my camera is broken so I can't photograph fungi any more. :( What terrible timing, right in peak fungi season!
I was at Farlington Marshes nature reserve a few weeks ago and the weather was pretty grim-rainy and windy, and all wind in Farlington feels about double as much because it's flat and coastal, with no hides. The birds weren't bothered at all but I wasn't sure how long I'd stay, until I noticed a flock of ducks bobbing out in the sea. (not the open sea, it's a harbour in the Solent.) It was, in fact, the largest flock of Red-breasted Mergansers I've ever seen! There were 23, which wouldn't be that much if you were talking about Teal, or Wigeon, or many of the other ducks that Farlington gets each winter, but I'd only ever seen one or two together before, with my maximum being 8 or so at Farlington a few winters before. Those had been quite far away, but the large flock was much closer, all bobbing along facing in the same direction. There was an interesting mixture of plumages, with ducks, drakes and young drakes who were still moulting into their adult plumage which made them look quite scruffy!
Mind you, Red-breasted Mergansers are quite scruffy anyway and that's part of why I like them. I love their shaggy crest and their long, slim, toothy bill. They are part of the sawbill family, which in Britain is made up of the Goosander, the Red-breasted Merganser and the Smew. Out of those the Smew is the odd one out because it is much smaller and looks completely different. The Merganser and Goosander look very similar, especially the females. All three species are interesting in that instead of having the female be brown and streaky for good camouflage on the nest, she is grey with a red head. (This was the reason why I liked the Smew so much as a little girl! The female Smew is so pretty compared to the other female ducks. I hate when birdwatchers call 'redhead' Smews boring and only want to see the drakes-this is a thing, for those that don't know. But it's silly because redhead Smews are great.) I don't know why sawbills don't seem to need the brown streaking for when the female is incubating- does anyone know? Perhaps brown streaking wouldn't work as camouflage in some of the countries and habitats where they nest.
Goosanders, which I talk about seeing in this post about Blashford lakes, are more likely to be found inland on lakes, streams and rivers, while Mergansers are more likely to be found at sea. This contributes to the 'wild' feel Mergansers seem to have, and even their plumage seems wilder than the more neatly-turned-out and clearly marked Goosander: even though the drakes of these two species have similar areas of colour on their plumage they really are nothing like each other.
I watched this one flock of 23 diving, which they all did together, starting at the front and moving backwards in a sort of 'wave' effect, so that by the time the ones at the back had dived the ones at the front had just come up. They did this over and over again so it definitely wasn't an accident. I wonder if this was a deliberate strategy to confuse a shoal of fish, perhaps driving fish into the beaks of the birds further back? They dived so often it was impossible to get a good long view, it was almost as bad as trying to watch Little Grebes. Though some Little Grebes actually joined them at one point! There must have been a lot of fish down there. Seeing them compared to the tiny Little Grebe made me see how while Mergansers are still bigger, they really are not large as ducks go.
Finally the Mergansers finished fishing and settled down for a preen, giving me a chance to get a nice long view. Though preening wasn't the only thing going on. There were two fully adult drakes (possibly the only two in complete moult in the flock? There weren't that many that didn't look a bit scruffy) who started bickering. They began a sort of display with each other, holding their heads high in the air before suddenly dipping them down and opening their beaks wide. It's possible they were also calling, I wished I could hear what kind of sound a Merganser makes. This display was done parallel to each other rather than facing each other, and it seemed like they were mimicking each other. The next breeding season may be a long way off but as they will presumably be in this flock all winter, maybe this is some sort of ritual to sort out each drake's social standing to keep the group harmonious? It didn't last long, anyway, with the drakes soon settling down to preen with the other ducks. And gradually the flock moved its way away from the shore and out into the open harbour, much to my wistfulness. I could have watched them forever.
What's your favourite duck, and why?