Sunday, 28 March 2010

Ducks everywhere

Female mallard flees advances from rogue males

There's a flurry of activity in the garden every evening between 5.30 - 7.00pm as hungry female ducks arrive with their partners for supper after sitting for hours on their nests. The mallards aren't the only arrivals, though, as we now have two pairs of mandarin ducks accompanied by a spare male, a pair of pochards with a spare male, the two fat ladies and their unruly mob of hybrid ducks, two pairs of mute swans, and two pairs of warring coots.

The pecking order has nothing to do with size, either. One pair of mandarin ducks reigns supreme, successfully seeing off every other duck from the feeding platform. Only the coots occasionally challenge them. The pochards don't get a look in.

Meanwhile, the more timid ducks await their turns on either our summer house roof or our neighbours' roofs. It's easier to feed some of them in a bowl in the garden which speeds up the process and causes fewer fights.

Bidou, meanwhile, is sitting on at least two eggs and is being thoroughly spoiled by the lagoon householders, so we rarely see her here now. For the past two years her eggs have been infertile, possibly because she's mating with a mute swan. Once again her mate is a mute swan so we have doubts as to whether the eggs will be fertile. What the cygnets might look like, should the eggs prove fertile, is anybody's guess.

So far we still have no takers for the upstairs nesting box but a mallard has been investigating a hanging basket by the patio doors and covering the deck below with earth and dead plant material. This morning I watched her fly on to the basket but when she saw me sitting at the computer she flew off again.

Great crested grebes

It seems only a week or so ago that the grebes were in their drab winter plumage but all of a sudden they are sporting courtship colours and their crests are most impressive. The male mandarin ducks are also looking particularly striking at present.

Dave has just told me that the grebes in the lagoon have had their nest, with one egg, raided. Coots attack the grebes' nest every year, turf out any eggs and claim the nest for themselves. Alternatively, it's possible that a crow or magpie stole the egg. I saw a crow perch on the side of our dinghy during the week, edging towards Lonely's nest. We're not sure whether it would dare risk entering the nest box because of its size but we've seen magpies raid our nest boxes on a regular basis. The crow is so clever it has learned to land in the river to grab pieces of bread when people are feeding the ducks. It's more of a 'touch and go' but it still stops in the water for a moment, rather than just skimming the surface.

Female mallard in sunlight

In spite of their uniform colour, female mallards are quite lovely to look at when you study the patterns on their feathers and beaks. Their colours vary tremendously, as do their personalities. One mallard is so trusting that she flies down the greet me and runs right up to me. Another, pretends to be afraid and opens her beak to 'swear' at me to keep my distance. Some ducks are pale and thin, while others are glossy brown and well padded. Their beaks are also quite different, some almost black, others mottled and some quite pale. I've noticed, too, that the line that 'highlights' their eyes, which is typically black, can also be very pale. Goldeneye, my long term resident until the fox got her last year, had a definitive 'blonde' streak around her eyes.

We have always assumed that a fox took Goldeneye but Annie, downstream from us, has said she's seen a mink around. That's really bad news for the wildlife, especially coots, moorhens and tufted ducks. We've suffered the results of their killing sprees in the past, which have included attacks on swans, ducks, and the smaller waterfowl. One mink wiped out an entire coot family and it was heartbreaking to hear the parents' desperate cries as they tried to defend their youngsters.

Lonely approaching her nest

Lonely is sitting on her eggs full time now so I seldom see her except on the rare occasions when she is driven from the nest by the rogue male 'waiters'. They are brown hybrid ducks with white chests that hang out together and attack any female that enters their orbit. Mr. Speckles, one of the guilty 'waiters', encouraged his mates to 'gang up' on his own partner last year, and is now without a mate but just as badly behaved. Poor Mrs. Speckles was attacked so often last year that she lost many of her feathers and was partly bald down her neck and back. Often, when one of 'the waiters' dragged her off her nest, her eggs were damaged. Also, because she was dragged off so often and 'gang raped' she took a long time to recover from near drowning and in her absence a magpie would steal her eggs. In the end she drowned following yet another attack from her errant partner and his mates.

I'm pleased to see that Lonely's mate is far more diligent and aggressive at protecting his partner. He keeps a close eye on the nest box and drives off 'the waiters' when they attempt to attack Lonely. Occasionally she is driven off the nest at first light but for the most part she has been allowed to sit on her eggs in peace.

Lonely's first egg

This is Lonely's first egg, laid on March 1st. Her nest is now full of eggs and is covered with a combination of straw and her downy feathers. Every so often we see her poke her head out of the box but she is fairly secretive. Her mate spends a lot of time idling in front of the nest and muttering away to her. When he gets fed up he hauls out on our neighbour Patrick's deck and rests there where he can still keep guard over Lonely.

Mute swan chasing off a rival

The dominant mute is still chasing away intruders but we see less of him at the moment. He's probably with his mate on the other side of the island where she is nesting. This gives UPH and her partner a chance to sneak in and grab some food.

What surprised me on this occasion was that the dominant mute ignored the younger swan which still has some brown feathers and is therefore one of last summer's cygnets. Typically, the parents see off their own youngsters when they are old enough. Perhaps dad decided to give his offspring a chance because this is the second time that he has chosen not to drive the youngster away.

The pochards call by for a late breakfast

I presume that the pochards are nesting again on Garrick's Ait this year. They arrive every morning, lunch time and evening for their 'wheat treat' and then drift upstream again. The 'spare' male turns up quite often but isn't encouraged to linger.

While I've been writing this a female mallard has just flown back onto the hanging basket but was once again spooked by movement in the house. We don't mind her using it as a nest but she'll have to get used to us or it will never work! She's back on the basket again and is chucking earth on to the deck with gay abandon. We'll have an egg in there by lunch time so I guess I'll have to cover it up with some straw to hide it from magpies and crows. Unless, of course, she is spooked by our movements and decides to nest elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the upstream coot has decided to use Lonely's gangplank as a haul out and grooming spot. I don't suppose Lonely is too impressed by having to share her property with an aggressive coot.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Lonely lays her first egg

Male tufted duck taking a nap

We've had mixed weather again, plenty of grey days but sunshine at times too. The temperatures have been on the chilly side still, but the wildlife has decided that Spring is definitely here. The grebes have regained their glorious 'courtship' plumage and the mandarin ducks are looking their best.

Lonely, the little hybrid duck with dark feathers and a white chest, has decided to use the nesting box at riverside level. On March 1st she laid her first egg and now has at least 10. I just went to check in the box but she's already sitting so I shan't disturb her. To keep her safe from the fox Dave has placed a barrier at the corner of the walkway which should prevent it from trotting round to the nest boxes. Having lost Goldeneye to the fox last year we don't want Lonely to meet the same fate.

Mute swan flies away to avoid attack from rival

The dominant mute swans are patrolling their territory very aggressively at the moment. It's amazing to watch the power in their wings as they take off. Yesterday I watched one swan almost brought down in flight by it's attacker. Fortunately it just managed to surge ahead at the last minute.

Rowers on a grey and misty morning

Cormorant flies off after a good breakfast

The cormorants have been dining well, recently, and it's fun to watch them surfacing with fish just beyond our deck. The grebes are feeding well, too, so it's a sign that the river must be quite healthy.

S.L. Belle going upstream

On another grey day this lovely old steam launch passed by, an elegant example from a more glamorous era.

It's now mid March and I'm hoping that Spring will show more obvious signs of its arrival. The garden still looks reluctant to come out of hibernation but the birds, at least, are active in the garden and we had the pleasure of a visit from a beautiful song thrush this week. The kingfisher has also stopped by a few times recently but we can't predict when it will arrive, which is a shame. It's such a stunning bird.