Norfolk Wildlife Trust evangelist Nick Acheson on why he’s quackers about our wonderful water birds
Why NWT’s Nick Acheson adores our ducks
Ilove ducks. Duck-loving might be said to run in my family. On the day of my aunt’s christening a relative presented my mother, then a little girl, with a newly-hatched Aylesbury. Eclipsing my aunt’s baptism, the duckling was daringly named Donald (my aunt is Mary, for those who were wondering).
The duck pottered for many years around their childhood garden and was my mother’s best friend (apart from a disobedient golden retriever). Her name did change to Donnie, however, on the occasion of her first egg. In the early 1950s no counselling was considered necessary for those involved in such circumstances.
Through our childhood we too had happy white farmyard ducks (and golden retrievers) in the garden. Ducks have always been part of my life and I love them. I love writing about them too.
Outside my front door is a village duck pond and I can hear drake mallards piping as I write. In my mind’s eye I can see three drakes bowing to a duck, quivering their tail curls, as they call.
I have also seen tufted duck and gadwall on the pond, shelduck flying over, and a mandarin on the river just metres away. Once I saw a drake teal drop in on a blustery day.
For a short while he fidgeted between groups of mallards before realising this wasn’t his pond, these weren’t his people. He fled to a wilder place and I never saw him again.
Many of Norfolk’s winter ducks bear wildness in their very nature. All through the Fens, the North Norfolk coast and the Broads in winter, the wet grass ripples with wigeon, thousands and thousands of wigeon. Though a small number breed in the UK, our great winter flocks come from Scandinavia, far north Russia and, to a lesser degree, Iceland.
Bird migration knows no Brexit. If you have never knowingly seen a wigeon, at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserves Holme Dunes, Cley and Salthouse Marshes, or
Ranworth Broad, finding wigeon is be all but guaranteed.
And what joy when you do find your wigeon. Wigeon, in fact, are usually heard before they are seen, the drakes’ whistles telling Norse tales from subarctic lakes and bogs. Once you set eyes on your wigeon you will be startled by the beauty of the drakes, enchanted by the gentle faces of the ducks.
The difference between drakes and ducks, known as sexual dimorphism, is easily explained. A drake’s job is to dazzle a female, to woo her with his whistles and wiles.
The more sensible, but equally lovely, duck’s job is to sit undiscovered on her nest for three weeks and then marshal her bobbly ducklings until they are old and strong enough to face the world and migrate hundreds of miles across it, all alone. It behoves her to be camouflaged.
So the drake, in winter and spring, is a thing of burnished beauty. His round head is chestnut, shot in an arc behind the eye with green. His forehead and crown are the gold of my grandmother’s butter.
She grew up – bear with my digression – in Matlaske Hall and all of her family’s milk and butter came from their red poll cattle. To her dying day her butter never went in the fridge. It sat on a dish in her pantry, with a deep golden crust the exact colour of a wigeon’s pate.
Our drake’s breast, though, is a muted pink, an ageing armchair pink, framed by the clear grey of his flanks which is finely pencilled in black. When he flies – the pack of ducks reshuffled perhaps by a peregrine – his wings flash white, with a trailing edge – a speculum, no less – of emerald.
Both drake and duck have stout, pale blue bills with black tips. They are not so long as most ducks’ bills, as the wigeon’s diet is largely grass. This is a ripping tool, much like the bill of a goose.
I meant today to write about teal, about shoveler, pintail (my favourite) and gadwall. Such is my love of ducks that I have got stuck on one duck alone: the wigeon. But if ever a symbol were needed for the wild grazing marshes of Norfolk, for our saltmarshes, our Broadland pools and Breckland mires, the wigeon would be it.
And if ever there were a time for us all to love these wondrous places and the wildlife they hold, and to cry out with all our strength for our wild heritage to be saved, it is now. So put down this magazine and go out to find a wigeon. And finding one, fight with all your being to keep wigeon and wild places in our Norfolk lives forever.
‘Once you set eyes on your wigeon you will be startled by the beauty of the drakes, enchanted by the gentle faces of the ducks’
ABOVE: Teal Photo: David Tipling
Wigeon Photo: Josh Jaggard
ABOVE: Gadwall Photo: Dave Kilbey