Any wildfowler should be able to identify ducks and recognise their flight patterns: Mike Swan gives you some tips on what to watch for
Identifying different duck breeds
The question “What’s that one then?” should never be heard from the person who shot a bird, so knowing what the odd unusual duck looks and sounds like is a real benefit at flight.
So, too, is knowing what to expect, so you don’t pass up an opportunity that might just have been the chance of a lifetime to shoot something different and delicious.
For every wildfowler, knowing our nine legal quarry ducks inside out is not just desirable — but well nigh essential to getting the most from our wonderful sport.
Most flightpond shooters will never see one and if your pool is surrounded by trees, you can effectively forget them. Wigeon, whether inland or on the coast, are primarily grazers, so open pools, splashes of floodwater and creek edges at full tide are the real draw.
They love to land on water and walk ashore to feed in the margins, or graze the eelgrass on the estuary flats when the tide is out. Look out for something a little smaller than a mallard, with a relatively longer tail and a noticeably short bill. The wonderful whistling ‘wheeoo’ of the cock bird should have your hackles rising in excitement when it comes to you out of the dusk.
The tiny teal buzzes with life and is the ‘whiz-bang’ of the duck species, suddenly appearing and just as quick to depart. There should be little chance of a mistaken identity because it is so much smaller than the rest of the quarry ducks. On the marsh teal will often fly low when the other ducks are in the stratosphere, so it always pays to keep watch at head height, especially if you hear the sharp whistling ‘crick’ of the cock.
If you are alongside a river or creek, your first view of a teal may well be as it comes around a bend towards you, below bank height. The only real risk of misidentification is with the protected garganey, which is a very rare summer visitor to the UK, and usually gone by the time the season opens.
Pintails are almost as big as a mallard, but are slimmer and much more elegant. The long neck, long tail and slender wings are all noticeable in silhouette, and the white breast and neck of the drake in full plumage are obvious in good light. The flight pattern has a rather shallower wingbeat than other ducks, too.
Pintails are pretty much coastal in distribution and very much a wildfowlers’ duck. They will flight inland to pools and freshwater marshes, but are extremely rare at flightponds. Apart from the distinctive sound of the wingbeats, they are usually very quiet birds and I have never heard any sort of call.
The mallard is so familiar that it should not really need any description. The question is not so much how to identify it as how to spot something different. I well remember my first trips wildfowling on the Medway and my father’s warning to “beware the easy mallard, coming out of the sun with wings set as it tips into the decoys”. How right he was, for though I never actually made the mistake, I came close to firing more than once. Normally the slower wingbeats of the shelduck — a protected species — would be a dead giveaway, even if you can’t see any colour, but with wings fixed for the descent you have nothing but the silhouette to go by.
Mallard is one of the most easily identified ducks — but don’t get fooled by a shelduck
With his rich chestnut head, black chest and stern, and finely marked grey body, the full-plumage drake pochard is a very striking bird. Both he and the rather drab female have pale grey wing stripes in place of the white of the tufted. They are mainly freshwater birds and often flock together with the tufteds on lakes and gravel pits, though they seem less keen on moving water. The divers generally have a fast and direct flight pattern and are much less likely to rocket skywards if alarmed by a shot or other land-based disturbance.
The huge spatulate bill of the shoveler — which makes it look almost like a cartoon creature — is specially adapted for filtering out small invertebrates from shallows. When the shoveler is swimming, its bill seems to weigh down the front of the bird, causing the tail to be cocked higher than the other surface feeders.
Flight is fast and direct, with less inclination to twist and turn than other ducks, and the big bill is obvious even in poor light. Shoveler have a quack very similar to mallard, but they seem to be rather less vocal, so you will probably not hear anything but a rush of wings when they catch you unawares.
The gadwall is very much a small and refined mallard. Like the wigeon, it is mainly a plant feeder, and it is of similar size. However, rather than grazing it feeds mostly in the water, taking significant amounts of the finer pondweed, as well as seeds and such like. As a consequence it has a ‘normal’ duck bill for its size, rather than the short stubby grazing one of the wigeon. In good light the white wing patches, where most other surface feeders have their iridescent speculum, is easily seen.
Gadwall are very much freshwater ducks and are notably infrequent on the coast, though they will take to the shore when fresh water freezes over.
These are diving ducks that take their food from the bottom. In common with the other divers, their silhouette on the water is distinctive, with the tail lying flush with the water surface, rather than cocked above like the preceding surface-feeding species.
Tufted ducks appear very black and white, with a white belly and flanks in the full plumage drake, and a very extensive white belly on the females. When they take to the wing, divers must run to take off, rather simply springing from the water like surface feeders, and in the case of the tufted, the long white wing stripes that reach out from the speculum into the primaries become very obvious.
They share these in common with the protected scaup, which are very much offshore sea ducks, while tufted are primarily found on freshwater, inhabiting both lakes and rivers.
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The angular and iridescent green head, white spot at the base of the short bill and bright yellow eye of the drake goldeneye are unmistakable, and most of the rest of the body appears to be white as he sits on the water.
When he takes flight he suddenly appears blacker, as the dark flight-feathers are spread. Females and juveniles are much browner, but they retain the distinctive head and bill shape. Goldeneyes are perhaps the most solitary of all the ducks, and the adult drakes especially so. If you see a group in winter, it will usually be no more than five or six, and I speculate that this is a family party still living with mum.
They are also the quarry duck most inclined to stick out over the water, flying low and fast, and unlikely to cut any corners that bring them closer to land.