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Teal ducks on the water

How to tell apart some of the ducks you’ll see on our coastline

We’re lucky enough to play host to a multitude of ducks along our coastlines.

But they’re not all the same: some travel 1000s of miles to spend the winter on our coastlines and shelter from the coldest weather of the Arctic, while others are here year around.

Here’s our guide to some of the species of ducks you’ll see and hear along the Solent coastline.

Ducks floating on the water

Did you know that not all ducks quack?

It’s female (rather than male) mallards who give us the quintessential duck’s ‘quack’. Among our other UK ducks, wigeons notably whistle, while eiders sound like they’ve just heard the most scandalous gossip.

Have a listen and see what you think:

Sizing ducks up

Apart from the sounds they make, you can, of course, tell them apart by their shape and their size, as well as by the colours of their feathers.

Size-wise, there’s quite a difference between our coastal ducks as you can see in the picture.

A comparison of duck size from shelducks and eiders as the largest (at about 60 cm) to teals (at about 35cm) as the smallest

Shelducks and eiders are about the same in length but eiders are definitely the heaviest, weighing in at a mighty 2kg, while little teals weigh less than 400g. Mallards are the next in size, followed by shovelers, wigeons and, finally, little teals: the smallest UK duck we have.

Here’s a duck-by-duck description of some of the ducks you’ll see on the coast.

Mallards

Mallard ducks are our most numerous and widespread duck, and, as a result, it’s easy for us to take them for granted.

The male of the species has a glossy dark green head, a yellow bill, a white ‘scarf’, and curly black tail feathers.

Female mallards are more subtly coloured with a speckled brown body – though make up for this with their loud and distinctive call.

A male and female mallard duck

While many are year-round visitors, our mallard population more than triples during the winter when resident ducks are joined by others from areas much further north, sometimes thousands of miles away.

Beige line

Teals

These are our smallest ducks but they fly here for the winter all the way from the Baltics and even as far as western Russia.

Male teals have a beautiful green eye stripe – from where we get the name of the fashionable greenish-blue colour – and a dapper chestnut head.

You might also notice their horizontal white and black line along their sides and a pale yellow triangle on their behinds.

A male and female teal duck

Females sport a more standard grey brown plumage, often with a small white flash under their tails, but like the male of the species, they show a vivid metallic patch of green on their secondary wing feathers.

Beige line

Wigeons

Whistling wigeon visit the Solent’s coastline all the way from Iceland, Russia, Scandinavia and Ukraine.

The male has a chestnut head with a characteristic creamy-yellow ‘punk’ crown stripe, grey back and sides with a pink chest and white wing patches that can be seen when they fly. The female is light brown and looks quite similar to a female mallard.

Like many other ducks, wigeon don’t quack: instead they make a memorable whistling call.

 

Male and female wigeon
Beige line

Eiders

As well as being our heaviest duck, eiders of both sexes also have distinctive Concorde-shaped bills. They tend to stay quite far out to sea so you’ll most often see them through binoculars or a telescope.

The male eider is black and white, with a black cap, and a pale green patch on back of its neck, and a yellowish bill. Females are brown with a black bill and look so different that they were originally thought to be distinct species.

A female eider duck with male eiders behind

Unlike the other ducks on our list, eider ducks are diving ducks, rather than dabbling ducks. That means they dive completely under the water in search of food, rather than just ‘up ending’ with their tails in the air.

And who doesn’t love the noise a group of eiders make?

Beige line

Shelducks

This is a large, colourful duck, bigger than most ducks at around 65cm but generally smaller than geese so a bit of a intermediate species.

At first glance, both sexes look pretty much alike: both have a chestnut belly stripe, pink legs and feet, a glossy green head and neck, and a red bill.

But in spite of that, they’re pretty easy to tell apart. The most obvious difference is that drakes have a lumpy knob at the top of their bill.

Two male and one female shelduck

Most UK shelducks travel to the Wadden Sea to moult at the end of each summer breeding season. This is a huge area of tidal flats along the coasts of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. In this relatively safe and undisturbed area, they replace their old and worn out feathers, remaining flightless while their new feathers regrow, before returning here for the winter.

Beige line

Shovelers

This duck really lives up to its name, with a huge shovel-like bill, which it uses to feed by sweeping it to-and-fro in the water.

Male shovelers have iridescent dark green heads, white breasts and orangey-brown sides during the breeding season. Females are mottled brown, with a pale blue forewing and are easily distinguished from other dabblers by their long broad bills, which are grey with orange on their cutting edges and lower half.

Male and female shovelers

Watch out because shoveler look a bit like a shelduck from a distance and people can confuse them. Take a closer look though and you will notice they are different colours with very different bills.

How do ducks float?

Ducks have evolved perfectly for both air and water. So what features make ducks perfectly suited for aquatic life?

Webbed Feet

Ducks glide effortlessly through water thanks to their webbed feet. Their toes spread apart, allowing ducks to push through the water forcefully during each stroke, then closing them for the next stroke. Only three of their toes are webbed: the unwebbed hind toe, which is raised, helps them walking on land and helps give them their famous waddle.

Dabbling ducks, like mallards, teals, and wigeons, tend to have centrally placed legs for easy walking on land, while diving ducks, like eiders, tend to have legs set further back, which helps them swim and dive but makes walking on land more challenging.

Air-Trapping Feathers

Ducks have the ability to trap air inside their feathers: interlocking barbs within their feathers create tiny air pockets. When a duck needs to dive underwater, they press their feathers against their body to release the trapped air. After their dive, a quick shake-off traps the air again.

Hollow Bones

Like many other bird types, ducks have hollow bones. These lightweight bones not only aid in flight but also contribute to their ability to float on water.

Waterproofing

The uropygial gland produces an oily substance that they distribute over their bodies when preening, making their feathers water-repellent. This means their feathers don’t absorb water, allowing them to stay afloat without being weighed down by water.

Find out about other ducks that you’ll see on the Solent coast in our Meet the Birds pages.