Duck watching

Country Sights and Sounds
Duck watching

John Shelley

This morning dawned bright and clear, but with that peculiar quality of light that offers the sure promise of rain before lunchtime. The hills across the lake wore white peaks, courtesy of overnight snowfall, while in the valleys a thin blanket of mist hung low and still.
A short walk revealed a considerable addition to the local duck population. As always, when the temperature takes a dip the birds flock together, finding security in numbers. The new arrivals were mostly teal, with a few mallard and tufted duck. We had several pairs of ‘tufties’ nest in the locality back in the spring, and often saw two dozen ducklings, probably the offspring of three separate pairs, being looked after by a single female ‘babysitter’. These youngsters are now the size of their parents, but still easily distinguished by the rather subdued, grey plumage they will keep until next spring.
The resident birds, while naturally shy, appear bold compared to the new arrivals which scattered to the far side of the bay as soon as they caught sight of me. Indeed, so fast and sudden was their departure, I was unable to make even a guess at their number; two dozen, three perhaps, with more already beyond the reeds. If the cold stays so will the tufted ducks.
The teal, on the other hand, tend to come and go. Sometimes they arrive at dusk, skimming the tree tops and rising to make a wide circuit of the bay before steering quickly to the water. Their arrival can at times be startling. A quiet, still evening, with the dark closing in from all directions, when the shadowy mirror of lake gives up the last of its reflections and the only sound is the distant squabbling of starlings, suddenly explodes with noise as a flight of teal appear on the scene, circling and whistling, then descending with a flurry of wings in a long stream of the most beautiful ducks.
In the air they are a flight. Afloat, they are a raft. From a distance a dense company of teal might look like a slowly drifting island. With a favourable wind their combined fluting whistles make a pretty addition to the winter landscape. The birds crowd together, their voices stirring all at once as a wind chime in a sudden breeze, then suddenly subdued and whispering shyly. A prolonged spell of cold weather will bring more teal, along with so many other birds, from Iceland and northern Europe.
With the ducks will come woodcock, snipe, winter thrushes, and who knows what else. Last year we had egrets and spoonbills entertaining us, waxwings appearing in urban gardens, crossbills gathering in the spruce forests, wild geese on the mountain bogs, and enough of a frost to keep everything feeding out in the open for the better part of the day.
When the winter clouds clear they leave in their wake the most brilliant light, crisp and clear, with every colour accentuated. Brown is the dominant colour in this season of decay, but a closer look reveals more. Amongst the leaf litter of mixed woodland grows the Verdigris toadstool, its bright green colour almost luminous in the shade cast by leafless birch, beech and oak.
A pause under the beech brings softly translucent Hebeloma mushrooms to one’s attention; cream and buff, with a rich, enticing aroma, these are appealing to the senses. The unwary might be tempted to take one or two for the table, only to be put off by the bitter taste. The Fairy Cake hebeloma even sounds as if it ought to be good. It has another name, Poison Pie, which reveals its true nature.
A scuff through the leaf litter uncovers something much better, the cream coloured caps of the hedgehog mushroom. Where fungi are still fashionable the hedgehog goes by the name ‘Urchin of the woods’. The French call it ‘mouton’ and consume cultivated fruit bodies in large quantities. In recent years good greengrocers have started to sell a variety of different mushrooms, but all of them are grown in artificial conditions and lack the flavour of the truly wild specimen. As with the ducks, there is no comparison between the wild and the cultivated varieties. And colour, colour everywhere.
Travelling home, we skirted the estuary and stopped to watch a black-headed gull gleaning from the shallows. The clouds peeled away, blue light poured from the sky, filling the scene before us. There are moments we could be anywhere in the world. What better place could there be?