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Spotter's guide to fresh water ducks


Tom Waters from the RSPB gives tips on identifying winter ducks you can find on inland waters in the colder seasons.


Smew (Mergus albellus 

The Smew is the smallest of the mergansers with a delicate bill; drakes are white with a black mask while females are grey with a reddish brown head. Smews are winter visitors to the UK and arrive in small numbers from Scandinavia and Russia. They are usually seen in the south of the UK, between the line of the Wash and the Seven. Being the smallest their name is a likely variant of small.


Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Although numbers of Goldeneye can be quite low they scatter themselves widely over the UK. The drake is black and white with a greenish-black head and a circular white patch in front of their distinctive gold coloured eye. Females have a chocolate brown head and are mottled grey. In flight they show a large amount of white on the inner wing.  The Goldeneye first successfully nested in Scotland in 1970 since then birds have nested in boxes close to water and individuals can remain faithful to the same box every year.


Teal (Anas crecca)

This small duck is swift in flight. Males have chestnut coloured heads with a metallic green patch running from the front of the eye to the back of the neck, a spotted chest, grey flanks and a black edged yellow tail. Females are mottled brown. Both show bright green wing patches (speculum) in flight. They can be seen most of the year but are more plentiful in winter. Teal have been with us since the Neolithic times as their remains have been found preserved in peat deposits.


Pochard (Aythya farina)

In winter and spring the drakes are very distinctive with their reddish brown head, black breast and tail and a pale grey body. Females can be easily confused with other species as they are brown with a greyish body and pale cheeks. During the ‘eclipse’ when ducks grow new feathers males and females look alike. The name Pochard comes from the Old French name Pocher which means ‘to poke’ likely describing how the bird pokes about in weed for food.

Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula)

The tufted is a medium sized diving duck. Males are black on the head neck, breast and tail and white on the sides and a small ‘pigtail’ of black feathers on the back of the head, both have an attractive yellow eye. They can be seen on lakes, reservoirs and gravel pits. There are seven to eight thousand breeding pairs in the UK, with seven times as many during winter.

Wigeon (Anas Penelope)

These birds in flight have snow white bellies and males have a large white wing patch. The head and neck of the male are chestnut, with a yellow forehead, pink breast and grey body. Birds often breed in Scotland. Wigeon have two striking characteristics. Males have a high whistling call which can be beautiful when head in a large pack as well as a vivid orange-yellow streak which stands out brilliantly on their chestnut head giving them the name Golden head or Yellow Poll in Ireland.