Sunday, 17 April 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #12

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

That day was their first use
in the whole time since
his father’s death, eleven years
before; the mute swan

and the whooper, avocet
and teal, tufted duck and lapwing,
the pochard and redshank;
pushed the eyepieces closer

and apart, that occluded,
needed to be refocused;
shoveller duck and egret,
marsh harrier, bunting.”

Ian Pople, “His Father’s Binoculars

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 12
We have a busy waterside scene here, with a flock of the tiny duck, teal, “dibbling in the mud” in the foreground on a lake shore, with some shoveler ducks hunkered down between them and a roosting flock of lapwings or peewits. A single goldeneye drake (described in the book’s text as a “she” – wrong! Female goldeneyes are brown and white) is swimming close to shore in the top left, near some swimming black-headed gulls. A heron stands on one leg, overlooking the scene.

We’ve looked at a couple of these species previously, the heron in some detail here, and the peewit similarly here! Of the others in the picture, one that I was fascinated by as a child was definitely the shoveler duck (Latin name: Anas clypeata), one of our more unusual looking bird species. As my old AA Book of British Birds says: “The enormous heavy bill that gives the shoveler its name is specially adapted for feeding on the surface of lakes and ponds”. Paddling through the shallows, it dabbles in the water or thin mud, sieving out small plants and animals, hence its membership of the group of duck species known as “dabbling ducks”.

I am not a regular bird-watcher these days (other than daily naked-eye ornithology every day when dog walking), although I was a bit obsessed as a child, and haven’t seen a shoveler for years, and it is not a numerous species in Britain, especially in Scotland; but I remember vividly the first one I saw, at Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve. I must have been eight or nine years old and I was thrilled! The British Trust for Ornithology doesn’t maintain an entry for this duck in the Species Trends information that has been my main source of up-to-date information on the status and long-term success of bird species for this series of seasonal posts (come on BTO guys, what's a blogger supposed to do?). Its BirdFacts information does, however, give its status in the UK as a migrant breeding bird, and a passage/ winter visitor. It is unable to provide a population trend, although a summer population of 1000 to 1500 pairs is cited, along with a winter population of some 15,000 individuals. In “The Birds of the Western Palearctic”, it is suggested that, although there might have been some contraction of the range in Britain, there might actually be a slowly increasing British population.

The little flock of teal (Anas crecca) in the foreground represent a typical group of this, Britain’s smallest native duck, and another dabbling duck species. The teal is also one of the most aerobatic of our duck species, small flocks performing dramatic and rapid manoeuvres in flight outwith the breeding season. The explosive, near-vertical rising of a group of disturbed teal also leads to the collective name for the species, namely “a spring of teal”. In clay pigeon shooting (which I’ve never tried), I believe that there is a challenging dispersal of vertically-fired clay pigeons called “rising teal”, supposed to simulate this behaviour. Teal typically inhabit small pools, ponds, lagoons, slow-flowing rivers an streams, and complexes of wetland habitats. They prefer habitats where there is some form of dense vegetation cover, and they will sometimes nest away from water in gorse or bracken. The male teal is a strikingly beautiful bird, with a vivid metallic green eye patch on a chestnut coloured head, and both male and female bids have a green patch on the upper wing. In this Autumn picture, however, the birds are in “partial plumage” having moulted after their breeding season, and so they look a little more plain than normal.

Again, the BTO doesn’t maintain a Bird Trends page for this species on its website, so I must rely on other sources for information of the status and trend of the British teal population. “Birds of the Wester Palearctic” cites a marked contraction in the range of teal in Britain and Ireland, with a conservative estimate of a 20% decline in population over the 20 years preceding the book’s publication (1998), although no causes are suggested for this. A British breeding population of 1500-2600 pairs was estimated between 1988 and 1991, although huge numbers of teal pour into Britain in winter from mainland Europe and Iceland (the BTO quotes a winter population of 192,000 in the period 1994-1990!), to over winter here in our (usually!) milder winter conditions.

The other species of duck in the picture is a diving duck species, the goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), represented by a single male swimming, its white cheek clearly visible (it actually does have quite a bright golden eye but it is too far away to see this clearly. Practically all the goldeneye seen in Britain are here as winter visitors between September and April. While the summer population of (presumably) breeding birds here is around 200 pairs, the wintering population between 1994 and 1999 is around 25,000 individuals. Seen on lakes, lochs and rivers in winter, they are also seen on the coast when migrating. Here in Stirling, I see goldeneye every winter on the tidal river Forth, effectively the upper estuary of the Forth although it is largely freshwater moving up and down as it piles up against the rising tide further downstream. Generally, they are solitary males, easily identifiable from a long way off on account of the white eye patch and bright eye. They are tremendously good divers, and can travel quite a long way underwater.

The first reliable record of goldeneye breeding in Britain was in Inverness-shire in 1970 (BTO). Its status as a breeding species in Scotland has been enhanced by their colonisation of nestboxes for ducks installed as part of conservation programme in Strathspey. So, the summer population of this species has certainly increased in the 50 years since these books were published (partly as a result of human intervention), and “The Birds of the Western Palearctic” indicates that most populations in Europe are stable or increasing. A good point on which to end for now!


  1. Jings I've been missing these posts.....

  2. Very nice to be back too! Glad you're still enjoying them Al! Lots more to write still...


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