By Dr Barry Yates
Reserve Manager at Rye Harbour nature reserve
Winter is a great time for looking at ducks because the males (drakes) are in their very brightest colours and there are many that have flown thousands of miles to enjoy our relatively mild climate that rarely freezes their wetland homes. The females (ducks) are mostly brown all year, but usually have a bright male companion to aid identification. In Sussex there are about 30 types of wild duck seen each year which can live happily side by side with little competition for feeding because they have individual feeding techniques for different food.
They can be grouped into two main types: those that feed at the surface and those that dive down to find food – dabblers and divers.
The common dabblers find their food close to the surface, but they can go a little deeper by upending. First in this group is THE standard duck… the mallard which you can find on every pond, river, lake and reservoir with its metallic green head and cute curly tail feathers. The smallest duck you might see is the one that says its name; the teal which feeds on seeds from plants growing in the shallow margins. The shoveler swims around in circles using its large beak to filter out all the tiny plants and animals in the water.
The diving ducks live on bigger and deeper water, diving down to four metres to feed on animals living on the bottom. The most common is the black and white tufted duck that sports an elegant headdress and has a gold eye (there is a more unusual diving duck that is also black and white and is called a goldeneye). The pochard, pronounced ‘potch-ard’ has very pale grey wings and body with a lovely chestnut head. And lastly, a sub-group of the diving ducks specialise on eating small fish, and for this they have a serrated bill. The group is known as sawbills and has three species seen in Sussex, which are all scarce; goosander, smew and red-breasted merganser.
You can look for ducks on any pond or lake, but the greatest number and variety are seen at our wetland nature reserves, gravel pits and reservoirs.
red-breasted merganser sawbill with stickleback