By Charlotte Owen, WildCall Officer at the Sussex Wildlife Trust
Ducks are wearing their finest feathers at this time of year. They have moulted into their breeding plumage and many have already paired up for the spring nesting season. This makes it a lot easier to tell who’s who, since the mostly-brown females are helpfully accompanied by their brightly coloured mates.
There are about 30 different species of wild duck to see in Sussex. Some are seasonal visitors but others live here all year round and the most familiar is the mallard, which can be found anywhere with enough water to paddle in. Mallards are dabbling ducks, so prefer shallow water where they can find food close to the surface. They will occasionally go ‘bottoms up’ to delve slightly deeper and will gobble up pond weed, insects, freshwater snails, tadpoles and small fish. Fellow dabblers include our smallest species, the teal, which obligingly calls its own name. The male has a deep chestnut head with a crescent moon of iridescent green (‘teal’) eye makeup. The larger shoveler is easily recognised by its huge, broad bill, which functions like a sieve to filter out tiny seeds and insects from the shallows, but the male also has a bright green head, golden eye and a large splash of chestnut on his side. He will engage his mate in a distinctive courtship dance, where both birds dip their heads underwater and spin around each other in circles.
In contrast to the dabblers, the diving ducks prefer deeper water and can dive down several metres in search of food. The tufted duck is our most common diver. Males are black and white with a distinctive tuft of feathers on their head, which often curls down like a ponytail. ‘Tufties’ are frequently seen swimming alongside pochard (pronounced pot-chard) and these ducks have blocky, paint-by-numbers plumage: the male’s head is bright chestnut, his body is pale grey and there are neat patches of black on his chest and rump. Of course, none of these descriptions can really do these beautiful birds justice and it’s well worth a trip to your local lake, river or wetland to see some of them for yourself.