FISH GRIP­PER

Bird Watching (UK) - - Species -

a crest on the back of the head that can at times ap­pear as if it has been de­lib­er­ately smoothed down, while at oth­ers it can be more spiky in ap­pear­ance. Both sexes have a long red bill that ends in a no­tice­able down­ward point­ing hook. The fi­nal mem­ber of our tri­umvi­rate of sawbills is the Red-breasted Mer­ganser. It too breeds in Bri­tain, mainly in Scot­land and north west Eng­land, as well as in west Wales. From July, our breed­ing pop­u­la­tion heads to the coast, where in the au­tumn, win­ter­ing birds from Scan­di­navia and be­yond join them. They can be found around vir­tu­ally the whole coast­line of the Bri­tish Isles in the win­ter, with their num­bers peak­ing in De­cem­ber, so now is def­i­nitely a great time to get out and find them. The drake is an at­trac­tive bird, but un­like the more el­e­gant Smew and Goosander drakes, he is a bit of a punk when it comes to ap­pear­ance! With a won­der­fully di­shev­elled spiky crest on the rear of his green-glossed black head, a white col­lar above his streaky reddy brown breast, which it­self is flanked by a pat­tern of white spots on black, the male Red-breasted Mer­ganser is a bird that likes to re­ally stand out! With her of­ten un­kempt crest on her reddy brown head the fe­male Red-breasted Mer­ganser is cer­tainly no wall­flower, but as with the other saw­bill fe­males, she is more sub­tle in her plumage. The drake is an at­trac­tive bird, but un­like the more el­e­gant Smew and Goosander drakes, he is a bit of a punk when it comes to ap­pear­ance

The fe­males of both the Goosander and the Red-breasted Mer­ganser have very sim­i­lar col­oration and can be con­fused with one an­other, es­pe­cially at a dis­tance. The key area to look at, whether in flight or sat on the wa­ter, is the neck. Both have reddy brown heads and both can show a spiky crest, but the Goosander’s head colour­ing ends abruptly with a sharp lin­ear border be­tween it and the almost whitish lower neck. This con­trasts with the Red-breasted Mer­ganser whose head colour­ing blends in with the grey of the body and neck, with­out any clear border be­tween them. Good views will also re­veal that the fe­male Goosander has a small clean white patch on her chin and the long bill with the down curved hook at the end, both fea­tures that the fe­male Red-breasted Mer­gansers lack. In flight, the fe­males of both species show a square white patch on the rear of their wings. In the Red-breasted Mer­ganser this white patch has a dis­tinct black line run­ning across it, some­thing that is lack­ing in the fe­male Goosander. Habi­tat can also help you sep­a­rate them, with Red-breasted Mer­gansers be­ing found in coastal ar­eas and es­tu­ar­ies at this time of year, whilst the Goosander is more likely to be on in­land ar­eas of wa­ter. Hav­ing said that though, Goosanders do some­times visit es­tu­ar­ies in the win­ter and although it is un­likely that a Red-breasted Mer­ganser will turn up in­land this month, it is, as with any­thing in bird­ing, al­ways pos­si­ble. All three of our sawbills are great birds, it is a bit of a chal­lenge to see them all, but it is a chal­lenge well worth un­der­tak­ing. See if you can get your­self some sawbills this Jan­uary – you def­i­nitely won’t be dis­ap­pointed! This is why sawbills (this is a fe­male Goosander) have ser­rated bill edges: to firmly grasp slip­pery fish The feet are set well back, on this red­head Smew, to help un­der­wa­ter propul­sion Like all ducks, drake sawbills are only at their best when fully adult and in breed­ing plumage, un­like this moult­ing drake Red-breasted Mer­ganser

Neil Bur­ton / istock DIVER Wild­scot­pho­tos / Alamy NOT SO PRETTY Mike Lane / Alamy

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