Thursday, 8 January 2009

A bit of added colour

Bright and colourful, the Mandarin Duck is a species that is evidently exotic in origin. First introduced into Britain before the middle of the Eighteenth Century, this delightful little duck has now established a sizeable feral population. The current population, with its strongholds in Berkshire, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, most likely is the result of escapes and introductions that took place during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Typically secretive in habits, the Mandarin appears to have established a population numbering several thousand individuals, virtually unnoticed. Perhaps this is not the only reason why the Mandarin has not attracted our attentions in quite the same way as certain other exotic waterfowl. There have been no obvious conservation problems associated with its arrival. In fact, up until recently, it was thought that Britain held a sizeable proportion of the world population, with numbers in the native Asian range believed to be in severe decline. Fortunately, new estimates of breeding numbers in China, Japan and Korea suggest that the species is doing rather better there than previously supposed.

I remember seeing my first Mandarin whilst undertaking a hiking expedition towards one of my Cub Scout badges. To see such a brilliantly coloured bird (it was a male) on a tiny stream running through a block of woodland was a revelation. Here was a bird that looked even more stunning in the flesh than in those of my bird books which sometimes over-egged plumage colours. Since that first encounter I have stumbled across Mandarins on a fairly regular basis, though less so within Norfolk.

This pattern of encounters seems to be changing and, since 1995, the species can no longer be considered scarce within the county. Pairs have been reported breeding in Norfolk since the 1960s and there have been a number of high profile releases or escapes of birds, most notably at Sandringham where eight ducklings obtained from Windsor were released in 1973. A look through Norfolk Bird Reports supports the nortion that there has been a notable increase in sightings since 1995, with some sites now just about guaranteed to ‘deliver’ the species for the birdwatcher. Top amongst these has to be Felbrigg Hall, where a dozen or so individuals may be seen on the lake at this time of the year. Interestingly, these little ducks do not gather in large flocks, even though they are largely sedentary in nature. Nesting in tree cavities and feeding throughout the winter on tree seeds (such as beech mast and acorns), the grounds of Felbrigg must be a rather favourable habitat for Mandarins. If you get a chance to visit them, please do and add a splash of colour to a dull January day.

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