Monday, 2 December 2013

An explosion of teal

The teal are nervous, occasionally spooking themselves into an explosion of wings for no obvious reason. There are well in excess of three hundred of them here, gathered on this disused gravel pit in a loose extended flock. Most of the birds are towards the back of the pit, where the backdrop of reeds hints at shallower water; a smudge of grey forms on the darker pool. In with them are a few tufted duck, a single gadwall and a solitary male shoveler. It is great to see them here in such numbers.

We are stood well back, shielded somewhat by more reeds. As we scan the flock – there is the outside chance of a vagrant green-winged teal from North America – it becomes apparent that the birds are unsettled. Groups of a dozen or so birds take to the wing in alarm and then splash down again, triggering others to respond in a similar fashion. The effect reminds me of a small child striking the surface of a puddle with a stick to generate splash after splash. Every now and then whole flock takes to the air with a great rush of noise, wheeling above us in the air before dropping back onto the water.

Many of these teal will be winter visitors, arriving from Scandinavia, the Baltic States and western Siberia to join our largely resident breeding population. The numbers wintering within the UK are of international significance and many thousands may gather on the north Norfolk coast, around the Wash or across the Broads each winter. The flock before us is certainly one of the largest counts to have been made at this particular site, located deep within the Norfolk brecks.

The teal is our smallest native duck and also one of the most attractive. Breeding plumage males sport a chestnut head, with deep green sides that are bordered with pale yellow. They are neat little birds, agile in flight and apt to form densely packed flocks. Small parties may be encountered on sheltered pools and quieter stretches of river, the birds readily flushed if disturbed. I usually only see teal in these numbers on the coastal grazing marshes so to have a flock of this size so close to home is a welcome sight.

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