Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Strange happenings in the duck and coot world

 Before we went on holiday in May a mallard was sitting on 11 eggs in one of our riverside nesting boxes.  When we returned there were only 7 eggs in the box and eggs continued to disappear, one by one.  Eventually she was down to three eggs which were due to hatch two days later.  A fox would have had difficulty removing any eggs, a mink would probably have taken the eggs and the mallard, and there was no sign of any breakages so we wondered whether a grass snake might be raiding the box.  Matters took a turn for the worse for our mallard when another mallard with two ducklings took over the box.  Our female was forced to sit on our boat and wait for the intruders to leave the box for short feeding forays.

Our mallard drinking at the pond 

She only managed to sit on the remaining eggs for short periods of time and it became obvious that the eggs weren't going to hatch.  On the day the ducklings should have been due she abandoned the nest.  We felt so sorry for her.  She had invested almost a month of her time and energy with no results.  During that time she had been regularly attacked by a rogue drake, at least four or five times a day and, although her partner had been great at driving off the male he wasn't always around to do so.  

We had installed a camera in the box so I was able to monitor what was happening and I would suddenly notice on our TV screen that the rogue drake was marching up the plank and entering the box to attack our female.  I managed to drag him out a couple of times but, on one occasion, I didn't reach the box in time and the struggle was so robust that the drake actually knocked the lid (complete with camera) off the box.  I just had time to rescue both as they floated downstream and then disconnect the leads.  At long last the camera has dried out and is working again!

A very hacked off mallard waiting to get back on her eggs

While all this was happening a female tufted duck was also showing signs of wanting to nest in the same box and she would often waddle up the plank and stand at the entrance to the box looking at the sitting mallard.  There is another box close by so we weren't sure why the tufted duck didn't just use that box.  

The sorry ending to this tale is that the intruder mallard lost one of her ducklings the next day and the other one two days later so she, too, abandoned the box.  This particular box seems to be jinxed!

The partner of our mallard on the rill of the pond

We thought all this was unusual but what happened next was stranger still.  Coots don't nest in boxes, they normally build big untidy open nests with twigs, flowers, iris leaves, sweet paper wrappings and whatever else floats by and takes their fancy.  Every year a pair of coots tries to nest on our wooden feeding raft, which is doomed to failure as the wash from passing boats always removes everything from the surface of the raft. This year, after several failed attempts on the raft, I noticed a coot at the entrance to the other riverside nest box and it was behaving oddly.  The box in question has a plastic mallard on its lid put there by my husband for fun, and the coot was attacking the decoy duck with its beak.  It was very funny to watch but I didn't think anything more of it until the same thing happened on the following day.  I started to take notice and saw the coot attack the decoy and then enter the nest box.  Later, when the coot had left the box, I looked inside and discovered two eggs so I put some more straw in the box to cover the eggs.  We had decided that the mallard's eggs must have been taken by a cheeky magpie so I put plenty of straw in the box so that the coot could cover its eggs.

Coots take it in turns to sit on their eggs and while one sits, the other tirelessly brings more and more nesting material.  A typical nest gets bigger and higher every day but the box limited any grand designs the coots may have had for their nest.  As the entrance is narrow the coots were unable to drag large twigs up the plank, in spite of many heroic efforts.  What amazed me was that they soon learned to only bring smaller leaves and contented themselves with my offerings of additional straw.  

They are usually excellent parents and fierce in the defense of their territory so there was always one of them in the vicinity of the nest and none of the eggs disappeared as a consequence.  They now have five healthy kids and no longer use the box.  When I emptied it out there were three unhatched eggs inside that had been abandoned once the five youngsters had hatched.  I put them on the deck, intending to throw them in the river, but someone came to the door and when I returned to deal with the eggs I was just in time to see the crow making off with the last one!

 Coot on the defensive

Since then the same nest box has attracted renewed interest from a pair of mallards and a pair of tufted ducks so I filled it with fresh straw.  The mallard started laying almost a week ago and when she had four eggs I noticed that the box seemed to have been raided as there was straw down the plank and floating off downstream.  The next day I caught the culprit in the act, a large crow at the nest entrance, tearing at the surface straw to get at the eggs!  Fortunately it didn't succeed but we didn't know what to do to stop it another time until Dave remembered that we had been given a mini scarecrow.  He placed it next to the nest entrance and we waited with baited breath to see whether it would also scare off the mallard.  She did hesitate and turn away several times but finally went into the nest and now totally ignores the scarecrow even though it sometimes flaps in the breeze right next to her.  It seems to be doing its job though because no eggs have been stolen and I haven't seen the crow attempting to approach the box.  The only problem now is that the rogue male that attacked our original female mallard in the other box is now up to his old tricks again.  Also, a female tufted duck seems to want to use the same box!  There's no peace for nesting mallards.

Sadly, we've seen no surviving ducklings near us but there were 7 'teenage' ducklings further downstream so a few have beaten the odds!  A tufted duck, that had eight youngsters, is now down to two, and the swans have four remaining cygnets after two disappeared.  The herring gulls have been patrolling the river in search of food for their youngsters, and the herons and crows have been swooping down on unsuspecting baby water birds so the attrition rate is disappointingly high.  I watched a heron attempt to take a duckling three times but its mother spotted the heron in time, spread out her wings and almost rose out of the river in defense of her young.  She succeeded in forcing it to swerve and saved the youngsters that time but lost them several days later.

Peacock butterfly on garden flowers

It's been another deeply disappointing Spring (and early summer) but during the week that we had fine weather the bees and butterflies made the most of the sunshine and the plant pollen and nectar.

Shaggy peacock butterfly on our marsh marigolds

Flaretail in the garden

Flaretail is a fine looking mallard and she knows it.  She has a habit of flaring her tail, far more than the other mallards, hence the nickname.  Her partner is a brown hybrid duck, one of the 'waiters' as we call them because of their white chests.  Flaretail always flies onto my therapy room roof and waits for me to put food in a container in the garden near the pond.  Unlike the other ducks she rarely feeds from the plank in the river.  For a while she seemed to be looking for a nest on the top deck but, again this year, the two nest boxes up there have been ignored.  Gone are the days when 'Golden Eye' and her mate used to take over the garden deck and hatch three families of ducklings from one of the boxes each year.  The upper deck nest boxes are no longer in demand and our hanging basket duck has also deserted us this year.