By Denis O’Connor
Wharfedale Naturalists Society
AN early February walk round Swinsty and Fewston Reservoirs produced two concentrations of waterfowl, the first the usual conglomeration of mallards plus a few Canada and feral farmyard geese beside the car park at Swinsty waiting for the regular bread handouts.
Of much greater interest were the 62 teal (pictured) counted at the northern end of Fewston, up from 40 in mid-December, both numbers much higher than those usually recorded on these Washburn Valley Reservoirs which, with their steep sides and deep water do not attract big numbers of dabbling ducks when they are full. On this occasion the crucial factor in the unusually large number was certainly that the water level was low and the teal were spread along the edges, bills submerged as they filtered food, perhaps supplementing their usual winter diet of aquatic plant seeds with tiny water snails that were becoming more concentrated as the water retreated.
Teal are known to breed in the Wharfe and Washburn Valleys in small numbers but they are secretive, favouring upland boggy or rushy areas of moorland with small pools or lakes with thick vegetation at lower elevations and females with young have only occasionally been recorded in our area.
The UK breeding population is probably between 3000 and 5000 birds while the wintering numbers have been estimated to be as high as 220,000, a number that would include these Fewston birds which had probably flown from the Baltic or Siberia, for teal are great travellers with most of them wintering well south of their breeding range to which they will be returning about now.
Much closer to home, our garden ponds welcomed back the first pair of mallards on the 17th February. Last year a female nested in the vegetation at the end of the pond just across the patio from the kitchen, doing a daily commute between that pond and a bigger one at the other side of the house for a feed and a wash, eventually emerging with eight ducklings on the 15th June and leading them away down to the river.
I watched them, looking for indications as to whether this was the same female and perhaps with the same mate as the present male has only a very slight white neck ring, as was the case last year. Sure enough, on their second visit the female swam across the patio pond and vanished into the vegetation covering last year’s nest site to emerge after five minutes of investigation, hopefully satisfied that she could repeat her successful nesting experience of the previous year.