Christ­mas quack­ers:

Nor­folk Wildlife Trust evan­ge­list Nick Ach­e­son on why he’s quack­ers about our won­der­ful wa­ter birds

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - N nor­folk­

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

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