"Never raise your gun until you have positively identified the bird as legitimate quarry."
The problem facing all wildfowlers is that the run-of-the-mill bird books have drawings or photographs of the duck and goose species sitting obligingly on the water, presenting a nice side-on view. When we are out on the marsh with a gun it is more common for a grey shape to flip past our left shoulder in the half-light of dawn or dusk. It takes a lot of experience before any hunter can positively identify every duck or goose which he might encounter. The descriptions which follow not only deal with the plumage characteristics of the fowl which are most likely to be seen by hunter, but also mention the more obvious "keys" such as variations in wing beat speed, flashes of light or dark colour, wing length to body length ratio and differences in flight sound which the accomplished wildfowler will recognise in that split second before the gun is raised.
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
The commonest and best known of all our duck, the mallard is a superb table bird, especially early in the season. The male has an iridescent bottle-green head and neck, separated from its chestnut breast by a narrow white neck ring. The underbody and wing coverts are predominantly grey with the characteristic white-edged, blue-purple speculum being a striking feature. Tail coverts are black with the four central feathers upturned. A greenish-yellow bill and orange legs complete the familiar picture. The female mallard is a much less colourful bird of mottled brown and paler underparts. Her bill is orange and the legs are somewhat weaker in colour than those of the drake but the iridescent speculum is common to both sexes. Juveniles and the male in eclipse plumage are similar in general appearance to the female. The mallard has a strong, fairly fast, level flight with rapid wing beats. It is one of the largest duck. The drake is normally silent in flight while the female emits the familiar low "quack".
Wigeon (Anas penelope)
Many wildfowlers would suggest that the wigeon is the duck of the estuary and there can be little doubt that a pack flighting overhead, their characteristic whistle shrilling from a dark sky, is guaranteed to set the blood racing through the veins of a seasoned marsh gunner.
Somewhat smaller than a mallard, the wigeon is another duck which provides excellent eating as well as sporting shooting. The male in winter plumage has a chestnut head with a pale yellow forehead and crown, a pinkish-grey breast and mainly grey back and flanks. The white forewing coverts show boldly in flight, as do the very light underparts. The female and juvenile are predominantly rusty brown mottled with dark chestnut and they share the lighter belly of the male. Both sexes have a dark green speculum which is slightly less prominent than that of most dabbling duck. In eclipse, the male takes on the general coloration of the female but retains his white shoulder patches. The short pointed bill is typically grey with a dark tip and the legs are dark grey or black. The wigeon has a rapid flight with the wings often appearing sickle-shaped. It is medium sized and the short bill, light belly and the white shoulders of the male show up clearly in flight. The male has a high pitched whistle while the female has a lower purr.
Teal (Anas crecca)
The European green-winged teal is the smallest duck on the wildfowler's list but the male in full breeding plumage makes up for his small size by his striking good looks. The glossy chestnut head has an iridescent curving green stripe, with narrow cream edging, running from the eye to the back of the neck. The striated body plumage is well known to anglers who dress their own flies and there is a white horizontal stripe above the wing. The prominent green speculum is present in both sexes. The female, juvenile and male in eclipse plumage are very similar with their mottled browns and paler belly. The legs and bill of both sexes are dark grey, tinged with brown. The teal has a very rapid flight with small flocks frequently rising and dipping in unison. The male has a "prip-prip" call whereas the female "quacks" at a slightly higher pitch than a mallard.
Pintail (Anas acuta)
The handsome pintail must be a strong contender for the distinction of being the most elegant wildfowl species. In breeding plumage the male is resplendent in chocolate head and neck with a white stripe extending upwards from breast to ear. Grey underparts and flanks are set off by beautiful lanceolated scapulars of black, yellow and grey and there is a pale yellow patch in front of the distinctive black tail coverts. The female shares the slender neck and body of the male but is generally a light mottled chestnut with paler underparts. Juveniles are similar to the female but males in eclipse are somewhat greyer and may be distinguished by the bronze-green speculum on the wing. Bill and legs are grey with a bluish tinge. The pintail has a fast flight with very rapid wing beats. The male's "pin" tail shows up prominently in flight but both sexes are long, slender birds with slightly sickle-shaped wings. The male has a lower pitched "prip" than the teal while the female occasionally gives a rather weak mallard-like "quack".
Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
A very distinctive bird, the shoveler displays the ultimate in dabbling equipment - a very broad spatulate bill which gives an immediate clue to the species' feeding habits.
The drake in breeding dress has a bottle-green head, white neck and chest, dark chestnut flanks and underparts and dark brownish-grey wing coverts. The colouring of the female is similar to that of other dabbling duck but the shovel bill makes misidentification unlikely. Both sexes have a green speculum and display a blue-grey patch on the forewing. The shoveler has a rapid flight with a rattling sound from the wings. It is medium size and the light blue shoulders are prominent in flight. The large spatulate bill often looks longer than the head and it rarely quacks while flying.
Gadwall (Anas strepera)
Difficult to distinguish from a mallard when flying in poor light, the gadwall is slightly smaller but very similar in build and in flight pattern. The drake is predominantly grey with a brown tinged back. The female is very mallard-like but shares the white speculum of the male. The bill of the female has conspicuous orange edges which, although not present in the drake when in breeding plumage, are taken on in eclipse.
Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
All of the species mentioned so far have been dabbling duck of the genus Anas. With the tufted duck we come to the first member of the diving duck genus Aythya which also includes the pochard and the scaup. When in full breeding regalia the male has a black head, chest, back and tail with pure white flanks. The head is shot with purple and the chest often seems to have a greenish tinge. The name of the duck derives from a drooping black crest which is not normally obvious at a distance but which, in fact, is fairly long. The bill is blue-grey with a black tip, the legs are grey and the eye is bright orange.
The female's colouring is less contrasting than the male, her upperparts being dark brown and the flanks pale rust. In eclipse the male resembles the female but usually has lighter flanks. Both the male in eclipse and the female have a shorter crest than the breeding male. The tufted duck has a more fluttery flight than the dabbling duck, it is of small to medium size and the male's colour contrast is sometimes fairly clear. It rarely quacks in flight.
Scaup (Aythya marila) (Protected)
Closely related to the tufted duck, the scaup may easily be misidentified by a wildfowler. In breeding plumage the male has a black head, shot with green, a black breast, light grey wings and white flanks and belly. The female is predominantly brown with paler flanks and underparts. Unlike the tufted duck, the scaup is found mainly in sea areas and deep watres, rarely will be encountered on inland or shallow waters.
Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)
In some localities the shelduck is so numerous that one might wonder why it requires to be protected by law. Fortunately it is so distinctive in appearance that there is never any excuse for mistaking it for any other bird. Both sexes have a black neck and head, a white body and a rich brown yoke at shoulder level. There is a dark stripe down the underparts and the wing primaries are black. The male may be distinguished by the knob at the base of its bright red bill. The shelduck has a strong goose-like flight. It is large in size and its contrasting markings are usually visible, even when flying in poor light. The male occasionally whistles and the female has a short, low "quack".
Sea Duck and Sawbills
The goosander (Mergus merganser) and the red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) have long serrated bills which give an immediate clue to the diet of those duck, the major part of which consists of small fish. The goosander is the larger of the two but both are unusual in that the males have white and black bodies and green-black heads while the bodies of the females are grey and their heads are red-brown. Both species are protected.