A Drove of Ducks

, 20 December 2021
A Drove of Ducks

Winter is the best time to see a good range of duck species at Rye Harbour because many are escaping the cold icy winters of northern and eastern Europe, increasing the numbers of individuals and species on the reserve. They are also in their best plumage in winter and spring.

Ducks can be separated in to four groups, dabblers, divers, sawbills and sea ducks, based partly on structure and partly feeding habit (though there is some overlap). 


... are the classic and very familiar ducks such as Mallard, Teal, Gadwall and Wigeon, species which are largely vegetarian and feed by upending in shallow water. 

Gadwall also feed by shadowing Coots (also vegetarians) and steal the vegetation that they bring up from deep water, while flocks of Wigeon can be found grazing on grassland during the winter months. Shoveler belong to this group though they feed by sieving tiny invertebrates and seeds out of the water using comb-like structures on their huge bill. 

The Garganey is also a dabbler, but unusually amongst our ducks it is the only British species which occurs as a summer visitor.

Diving Ducks

...include species such as Tufted Duck and Pochard, which are both reasonably common on the reserve, and others such as Scaup which are less frequently seen! As the name suggest these species hunt aquatic invertebrates by diving and swimming under the water. Beware that many of our Tufted Ducks have much white at the base of the bill, which is a feature of Scaup - see the BTO guide by clicking here. A very uncommon visitor to Rye Harbour is the Red-crested Pochard, which despite being taxonomically related diving ducks is very reluctant to dive and prefers to feed by dabbling.


...are probably the least common of the three groups when it comes to Rye Harbour, though one species, Goldeneye is an annual winter visitor (albeit only in small numbers). As their common name suggests these species have serrated bills which are helpful when it comes to gripping their slippery prey! In the case of the smaller species such as Goldeneye and Smew, this includes aquatic invertebrates and small fish, while for larger species such as Goosander (photo, showing the saw bill) and Red-breasted Merganser the diet is almost exclusively made up of fish. The BTO have a nice video on identifying the two large species - click here.

Sea Ducks

... a rather looser category. Many ducks can and will rest on the sea including most of the common dabblers, diver and saw-bills but there are several species that are found here almost exclusively. This includes species as Common Scoter (and the rarer but still regular Velvet Scoter), Eider and Long-tailed Duck (though at Rye Harbour most records of this species are from Ternery Pool). In terms of feeding behaviour, these species are like the ‘divers’ in that they need to dive underwater to reach their prey (largely molluscs and crustaceans). Then there is the Shelduck, our only duck where the male and female have similar plumage - and that's because they nest underground, so the female doesn't need to be camouflaged. In spring they become more vocal and here we have slowed the sound down to hear more detail.

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