Sometimes forces outside my control conspire to make the penning of these little columns impossible within the deadlines set. Last week saw my little girl bravely fighting a nasty virus, covered in an angry rash and very much in need of daddy cuddles and not daddy on the word processor. It’s at times like these that I wish I had prepared a backlog of ‘anytime’ articles. Good, solid natural history pieces with little seasonality, which can be grabbed off the virtual shelf with an unseeing familiarity and dropped into an email to the editorial staff, in an attempt to make their excessivelybusy lives a little easier. Sadly, I am neither that well prepared or disciplined to havecollected such an archive, so I have to promise to bash something out later than any of us would like.
However, in the spirit of that need, the subject of this week’s article would have madean excellent choice for just such a prepared essay. No matter what time of year toventure down to the Axe Estuary or indeed the Exe or Otter, you are likely to see shelduck. A large, almost goose-sized bird with bold white plumage, dark bottle-greenhead and wing patch and broad chestnut coloured Breast band; they are hard to confuse with any other water fowl on our coasts.
Areas of estuary mud will be jealously patrolled by shelduck, with interlopers treated with extreme intolerance. Wings flapping, head down, the intruder will be seen off immediately. In keeping with their normal placid nature, they soon settle back down, as ducklings are brought back down to the water almost as soon as the albumen has dried on their down.Unlike other ducks, the males and females are very similar in looks Nesting underground in burrows, its less important for the female to be cryptically coloured when sat on eggs. When you see them at distance, you need to look for the large red knob on the top of the male’s bill to identify him from his female counterpart. A duck of gregarious flocks, males and females pair for life and can normally be identified as partners, even in huge groups, by the way they tend to forage together. The gregarious attitude extends to nesting behaviour, as pairs will often congregate in areas to nest communally, sometimes even with more than one pair in a single burrow. However, when the breeding season is under way there is one element of territorial behaviour which the ducks are fiercely guarded; their food.
The sight of adult birds leading a line of fluffy black and white ducklings back to the water’s edge is a fabulous and endearing sight of the summer. Once back in the water, parent birds will quickly become somewhat intolerant towards their own chicks, chasing them away whilst still very little ducklings. The cast out young group together with broods from other birds and these crèches are looked after by adult birds which have not bred that year. While the ducklings are in the crèche, the parent shelduckswill fly off to one of two locations in Northern Europe to moult their flight feathers in massive flocks of up to 100,000 birds in north Germany, and nearer 4,000 birds a littlecloser to home in Bridgewater Bay.
Shelducks moult all their tail and flight feathers at the same time, in a process known as the eclipse, during which time they are rendered flightless. Most ducks go throughthis stage, many such as the mallard enter a dull plumage colouration which somewhat mimics the female. Shelduck eclipse lasts about four weeks and their strategy to get through the vulnerable time is to flock together. The urge must be strong, as they travel hundreds of miles to do so and leave their entire parental investment for the year in the charge of a few failed breeding birds.
Not that this strategy isn’t working. Numbers for shelduck seem to be on the increase in recent years so, as traumatic as it seems, it works for them. Once the new set of strong flight feathers have grown through their blood-filled sheaths and returned the bird’s ability to fly, so they return to the estuaries where they will spend the winter andraise next year’s young. The shelduck’s diet consist of all sorts of crustacea and molluscs gobbled from the surface of the estuary mud, but their name confusinglydoes not refer to their appetite for shellfish. Rather, it is a reference to the bird’s colour, “sheld” was a fourteenth century word meaning variegated and the “sheldrake” was a name given to any black and white water bird including shoveller and merganser.
So, next time you catch sight of a pair of big, black and white ducks feeding in tandem on the mud, give a thought to the amazing journey their lives take them on each year, in their fight for life.