There is a handy vantage point I often visit which overlooks the flood plain of my local river. In the evening, as dusk begins to fall, teal can often be seen flying in to settle in the shallow boggy pools that are dotted across the flood meadows.
They are attractive little ducks and as I start to make my way home in the fading light it is not unusual to hear them whistling to each other in the still night air.
It is a magical experience which, like the pull of some irresistible magnet, draws me back to the same spot time and time again in winter. Gilbert White, the founding father of modern day natural history study, eloquently described these evening movements of teal: “…till towards sunset, when they issue forth in little parties (for in their natural state they are all birds of the night) to feed in the brooks and meadows”.
Teal are shy birds, but if I am stealthy it is usually possible to get close enough to see the colourful plumage of the drake; the green band outlined in yellow running from eye to nape, which contrasts beautifully with the reddish brown head and silvery body. The females are speckled brown and always look very dainty.
These striking feathers have long been cherished by anglers for use in trout flies, and the bird is also a much sought-after quarry among wild fowlers, revered both for the sporting challenge offered and fine table qualities. Mrs Beeton, the famed 19th-century cookery author, advised that teal tasted best after the first frost had set in, and that “the remains of teal make excellent hash”.
Winter is a good time to see ducks in Scotland because our resident populations are supplemented by many immigrants from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia. One of the most colourful is the wigeon. Although an uncommon and localised breeder in Scotland, tens of thousands arrive here in the autumn to spend the winter. They seem to particularly favour estuaries such as the inner Moray Firth, where they will feed in the shallow, muddy waters.
If there are no teal around my local river, there is still every chance that I will spot goldeneyes. These wonderful and aptly named little ducks arrive here in good numbers in winter from Norway, Sweden and Finland. Like the teal, they are skittish ducks, and will take to the air at the first sight of an approaching person. Once in flight, their rapidly beating wings make the most unusual and distinctive whistling noise. In recent decades, small numbers of goldeneyes have taken to breeding in Scotland, especially in Strathspey, often laying their eggs in specially erected nest boxes.
Other attractive ducks likely to be seen on our lochs and reservoirs at this time of year include the pochard and tufted duck. Out at sea, especially in our firths, will be scaup, eiders and scoters. When I was a boy growing up in Edinburgh in the 1970s, vast numbers of these sea ducks could be seen off Leith, attracted by the sewage outfalls and discharges from distilleries and breweries. Now that our seas have been cleaned up, these large congregations no longer occur to the same extent. Indeed, two winter visitors, the velvet scoter and the long-tailed duck, have become particularly scarce in recent years.
But when it comes to ducks, it is the mallard that is undoubtedly our most familiar type. It is an incredibly adaptable species, being able to nest in a variety of situations, and is as happy in an urban environment as in a remote Highland bog or loch. Mallard drakes are renowned for their promiscuity and once he has mated, he may then move on and try his luck with other females. Sometimes several unattached drakes will gang up on an unfortunate female at the same time, causing her considerable distress.
The female, however, is a very attentive parent and there are few more compelling natural sights than watching a mother leading her brood of ducklings down to the waterside, often crossing busy roads in the process and running the gauntlet of crows, gulls and other predators. It is for this reason that ducks typically have large broods, for although seven or eight ducklings may successfully hatch from a nest, in all likelihood only one or two will ever reach maturity.