Sunday, 21 July 2013

Headless ducklings!

It’s been a traumatic time recently for the ducks and ducklings.  A female mallard nested in the box that the coots had vacated but her chosen nest box was also favoured by a tufted duck.  We can’t be sure but we think the 'tuftie' laid some eggs in the mallard’s box.  After what seemed like a very long incubation period, so long, in fact, that we thought the eggs might be infertile, our nest box camera showed signs of some ducklings hatching and we had the pleasure of watching some of the ducklings emerge from their shells.  Watch a very brief clip (below) from our nest cam and spot the baby mallards towards the end of the video.

Twenty four hours later, the mallard we had nicknamed ‘Punk’ because of the rather cropped appearance of her head feathers was still waiting for one duckling to hatch but the others had already hit the water!  Fortunately most of them remained very close to the nest box but one drifted off and was never seen again.

When eventually Punk led her ducklings away from the nest box there were only two pure mallards and the rest looked suspiciously like tufted ducks as they had no tell tale yellow chests and were too brown to have been fathered by one of the hybrid males that had been hanging around.

Punk swims away with six ducklings

One of the brown ducklings headed back on its own and, although I tried to catch it and return it to Punk it disappeared before I could do so.  The following day Punk returned with only five ducklings and took them into the neighbouring nest box that was clean and lined with fresh straw.  We were relieved to know that they were pretty safe there, or so we thought. When we didn’t see them the following day we were concerned and something prompted me to look inside the box. I was deeply upset to see three headless ducklings, all turned over in the straw and one with its foot dismembered too.  There was no sign of Punk and the remaining two ducklings.  To our knowledge only a mink would have done this.  A fox would have taken the mother or grabbed the ducklings as a convenient ‘take-away’ and would not have beheaded the babies, whereas mink always seem to go for the throats of water birds.

The gruesome discovery

We had to assume that Punk and the other ducklings had died too but we looked out for her upstream, just in case, when we were out on our boat.  We didn’t really expect to find her so, to our amazement the following day Punk turned up with the two surviving ducklings, one a mallard and the other (possibly) a tufted duckling.  After grabbing a quick snack of wheat she took them upstream but then returned and spent ages quacking urgently in the vicinity of the nest boxes and I wondered whether she had lost the remaining two or was calling in the hope of finding the other three.  We saw her with two the next day so we’re hoping that she’ll keep them safe

Close up of the headless ducklings

Punk came for a spot of lunch today and seemed in a hurry so we think she still has at least one duckling somewhere safer than here.  It does seem that ducklings disappear far too quickly on this stretch whereas they fare better up around Platts Eyot and beyond.  The Herring Gull has been patrolling the river again and I’ve also seen a heron on the hunt for tasty young ducklings.  No doubt the pike, too, are adding to the high mortality rate of ducklings here.  Every ‘mum’ I’ve seen on this stretch has lost all her ducklings and that includes tufted ducks and a Pochard.  The only survivor so far has been one baby mandarin duck – the Bengal cat killed at least two of the other three mandarin ducklings.

We’re hoping that Punk will keep her two safe and that, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to see whether the brown duckling was a mallard after all or whether Punk unwittingly hatched a young tufted duck.