Go to the river over the winter months and you will see swans, ducks, geese and more. For day nine of our 12 days of winter wildlife, we are celebrating all things water and waterfowl.
Winter Wildlife: Water Birds
Academic in the Department of Zoology, and one of our visitor engagement volunteers in the Museum, Dr Tony Fulford writes:
Bodies of fresh water such as lakes and reservoirs in tis part of the world are surprisingly busy in winter. Those in the UK hold internationally important populations of waterfowl: ducks, geese and swans. Many of these species are adapted to live in cold northern climes breeding in the arctic. But even they cannot survive the dark, freezing arctic winters and fly south to overwinter with us.
A good example of this is the wigeon (or widgeon). Most wigeons breed on tundra pools or boreal forest lakes from Iceland to Siberia, including a few in Scotland. If you thought a duck quacks, think again. Male wigeons whistle and the sound of a flock whistling is a quintessential sound of wild wet places in winter. The females’ response is a sort of growl. They are rather dumpy ducks with a short bill reflecting their diet; you will often as not see them grazing on the grassy shores next to a lake. The male wigeon is a smart bird: grey body, black and white stern and chestnut head with a distinctive yellow stripe over the crown. The female is mottled rufous browns and greys. Both have blue-grey bill with a black tip.
Some teal breed in Britain but in winter large numbers migrate in from Northern Europe. They are tiny ducks and fly readily, taking off vertically from the water. They are essentially dabbling ducks. The male has an intricate filigree pattern of grey on its sides, a largely chestnut head with a broad metallic green patch sweeping back behind the eye and a bright yellow under its tail. As is almost universal among ducks, the female has much drabber, cryptic, grey-brown plumage. The male is another whistler, giving a short, trilling note that reminds me of a football referee’s whistle. If, as spring approaches, the males start to bother the females too much, the females reply with a very irritable “rehh-re-re-re”.
The mallard and gadwall are two resident, closely related, dabbling species. The Mallard is the original farmyard duck and domestication has produced a great variety of oddly coloured birds. However, the wild-type male mallard has an all-green head separated from dark brown breast by a white neck ring. The rest of the body is mostly grey, the bill is yellow, the legs orange and there are a couple of slightly ridiculous up-curled feathers over the tail. The female is much like a larger version of the female teal, from which she can be distinguished by the colour of her “speculum” (the patch of metallic coloured feather in the wing): blue in the mallard and green in the teal.
The gadwall is not a showy bird. Even the male is basically grey with a black stern, although up close you will notice the grey is finely vermiculated. The female is very similar to the female mallard, except for her white speculum. Both mallard and gadwall do quack. The mallard the males give a range of simple, longish quacks while the noisier females make a loud, laughing sound: “Whah-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa …”, sometimes in chorus with several others. The male gadwall gives short, nasal quacks and often mixed with high-pitch, whistled peeps; the females sound a lot like female mallards.
A final dabbler that deserves a mention is the shoveler. The male is a predominantly white duck with a metallic green head and chestnut flanks. Its most distinctive feature, shared by both sexes, is the enormous, flattened bill. Other than the outsized bill, the female is much like a female mallard. Within the bill are fine hairs with which they strain out plankton. They mostly feed by filtering the surface water, stretching their heads in front of them and sweeping it from side to side. Groups often feed together, swimming in circles to stir up the mud to release the tasty bits. The UK breeding population of just a few hundred pairs (mostly in the east of England) migrates south for the winter and are replaced by much greater numbers of migrants from northern and eastern Europe. They are comparatively quiet birds: the male utters a soft, distinctive “thnook thnook”.
There are two diving ducks commonly to be seen on lakes in the UK: the tufted duck and the pochard. Again, both breed here and migrants from the north and east greatly boost their numbers in winter. The tuftie’s range is more northerly than the pochard, which doesn’t venture as far as the arctic. The tuftie male is one of the most easily recognised of ducks: a small shiny black duck with very conspicuous white sides and a long, lax crest. The female follows the same general pattern but in a duller dark brown; her sides are also paler but brown rather than white. She also has a bit of a crest. The male has a soft, short, whistling “wi woo” call. The noisier sex in this case is the female, who whip up an incessant chorus of hoarse, “krrow krrow krrow…” sounds in the breeding season. However, both are fairly quiet in the winter.
The pochard male has a chestnut head, black breast and stern and grey back and sides; the female is a duller version of the male with a grey-brown head. Both tufties and, particularly, pochard tend to hang around in single-sex groups during the winter.
Like ducks, many species of geese specialise in colder climates and we in the UK are visited in winter by several species that breed in places such as Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and Siberia. These include pink-footed, barnacle, brent and white-fronted geese. However, much the most frequently encountered are the two resident, feral species: the greylag (the original farmyard goose) and the Canada goose (introduced from Canada in the 17th century). Both are very common in the farmland around Cambridge. In winter they spend much of the day out grazing in field and congregate at dusk on or near water to roost. In the late afternoon V-shaped skeins appear over the horizon making their way to a roost. Flying powerfully and low, honking noisily, they transform the tame Cambridgeshire farmland into something a lot wilder.
A little to the north, in North Norfolk, vast numbers of pink-footed geese make a similar spectacle. All around the eastern and southern coasts of England, especially North Norfolk, thousands of dark brent geese from northern Russia haunt the salt marshes. You need to go to Scotland or Northern Ireland to see barnacle geese (a smaller relative of the Canada goose), winter visitors from Greenland and Svalbad. White-fronted geese from Siberia winter on the Severn estuary while those from Greenland winter in Ireland and Scotland.
Geese are far less variable than ducks. There are hardly any differences between the sexes of any of them, which reflects their stronger, longer-term pair bonding compared with ducks. It is pretty difficult (though possible!) to differentiate the “grey” goose species (greylag, pink-footed, white-fronted) on their appearance alone but each species has its own peculiar honk by which they can be identified.
The familiar, sedentary mute swan, with its orange beak and black knob on its forehead, is with us all year round. They pair for life. Birds not found in pairs are invariably unmated youngsters (often with grey-brown feathers among the white) and tend to congregate in gangs. In winter we are also visited by two arctic species: whooper swans from Iceland and northern Russia and Tundra (or Bewick’s) swans from Siberia. Both have yellow bills, although the extent of the yellow is greater in the whooper. The commoner whooper is larger and longer necked while the Tundra has longer legs and is consequently a little nibbler on land. Both have loud, trumpeting calls, the Tundra a little more yappy sounding. Much like geese these swans spend their days in the fields feeding, often in groups of a hundred or more, and fly back to water to roost. Before leaving the roost in the morning Whoopers swim up and down, bugling away, gathering recruits to form a foraging party. Swans are among the heaviest of flying birds and need to run across the water for some distance to take off, so a dozen or so birds setting out together for the fields, wings slapping on the water and bugling frantically, set up quite a cacophony. The greyish young birds will leave with their parents; they will have migrated with them from their breeding grounds.
Our lakes and ponds attract innumerable other types of bird in winter. Kingfishers are ubiquitous around water but surprisingly hard to spot. Listen out for their trilling peeps if you want to see them dashing low over the water. Coots and moorhens busy themselves on almost any stretch of water, while little and great crested grebes will be found on most though, in winter, sadly not in their splendid breeding plumages. Snipe may be flushed around the edge of lakes and ponds, jinking erratically and making a sound like a Wellington boot being pulled from deep mud. Flocks of lapwing and golden plover may roost or feed around a lake’s edge, all taking to the air as one when spooked, perhaps by a passing marsh harrier or peregrine falcon. Never a dull moment!
Winter Water in you Garden
Sara Steele, Museum Learning Assistant, writes:
Earlier this year, we showed you how to create your own mini-pond using an old planter. The living things that have made this space home over the summer are now preparing for the cold winter months.
Frogs will hunker down in damp piles of leaves, compost, under rocks or even at the bottom of ponds over winter. They will take advantage of spells of warmer weather to feed.
Many invertebrates will remain in your pond over winter to shelter from the cold and can survive beneath the ice alongside amphibians.
These small tubs of water can provide for a whole host of wildlife all year-round. Take a closer look at your pond to see if you can spot life under the surface.
Make A Bird Bath
You don’t need to build a pond to provide a water source for wildlife, any container will do. From shallow bowls to old trays, as long as you can keep the water shallow and place a few stones in the middle so that insects can climb out, it’ll do the trick.
Take a look at the video here to see the day and night wildlife you could provide water for in your outside space.
Visit the blog again tomorrow to discover the some of the evidence animals leave behind, from footprints to owl pellets. Be inspired to create your own wildlife film with Ellie Bladon, and learn how to make your own sustainable, potato-printed wrapping paper.
12 Days of Winter Wildlife catch up:
Catch up on Day 1 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife. Watch the livestreamed launch, including a virtual tour of the wildlife in the Botanic Garden, a Q&A with Rob Jaques of the British Trust for Ornithology, and sing along with the premiere of the 12 Days of Critters song. Read the top winter wildlife tips from staff and students at the Museum of Zoology. Download our Winter Wildlife spotter sheet, and create your very own hedgehog in a leaf pile.
Catch up on Day 2 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds. Enjoy a wonderful film about attracting birds to your garden by Dr Andrew Bladon, listen to recordings of garden birds in winter by Dr Tony Fulford, and learn how to make seed cakes for birds with Lucy Williamson.
Catch up on Day 3 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Active Insects. In this post we explore the amazing world of moths that are active during the winter moths. Find out about moth-trapping with a film from moth expert Annette Shelford, discover winter moths and December moths with Research Assistant Matt Hayes, and make your own moth decoration out or recycled fabric with Museum Volunteer Natasha Lavers.
Catch up on Day 4 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Life Underground. Join Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects, as he gives his top tips for creating a compost heap, and shows you some of the amazing animals that live there.
Catch up on Day 5 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Hibernation. Find out about the insects that huddle away and stay dormant over winter with Matt Hayes, and create your own insect refuge for the garden with Sara Steele.
Catch up on Day 6 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Mammals. Get under the skin of the Red Fox and Badger as Learning Officer Dr Roz Wade takes you on a guided tour of their skulls. Find out about the seal pups born in the middle winter on the Norfolk Coast with Dr Andrew Bladon and watch Ellie Bladon explore the conservation of the hazel dormouse with her award-winning nature film. And download our food cache memory game to see if you have a memory as good as a squirrel’s.
Catch up on Day 7 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Visitors and discover the birds that escape the extreme cold further north by migrating to the UK for winter. Read winter visitors profiles and and listen to recordings of their calls by Dr Tony Fulford. Take a virtual tour of the winter visitors on display in the Museum of Zoology, and get inspired to make sweet treats and wrap them sustainably as winter gifts.
Catch up on Day 8 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Healthy Habitats. Go on a virtual tour of Cambridge University Botanic Garden and see some of the wildlife it supports. Find out about those unsung heroes of the garden – earthworms – and discover what it was about their behaviour that Darwin found so fascinating. And read top tips on how to make more sustainable food choices – comfort food that is comforting to you as well as to the environment.
And remember to send your winter wildlife spots and creations to us by tagging us on social media or using #12DaysofWinterWildlife and you could feature in our online community gallery.
Follow our Pondwatch series for more aquatic wildlife through the years.