The winter months provide a good opportunity to catch up with one of our less familiar species of wildfowl, namely the pochard. A male pochard is one of our smartest looking ducks, with his bold blocks of black and grey body plumage and deep chestnut coloured head and neck. The female, as is the case with most ducks, is less showy but her rather understated plumage still carries an echo of the male’s more flamboyant tones.
Many of the pochard wintering within the county will have arrived from overseas, birds that have joined individuals from our own rather small breeding population. Interestingly, this is a species of duck whose British breeding population only really became established after the mid-1800s. Before this time the pochard was largely restricted within England to the Breckland meres. Today the core breeding populations are centred on the Thames estuary, the coastal fringe of Essex and the Norfolk Broads.
It is during the autumn months that we start to see increasing numbers of pochard gathering at favoured sites, typically reservoirs, where they come together to undertake their annual moult. Numbers at these sites may remain high into the winter but concentrations also gather at other sites, including Titchwell, Welney and Pentney Gravel Pits. Smaller numbers can be found at Whitlingham Country Park and on many of the Broads. Pochard are mainly vegetarian in their diet and feed on stoneworts and other aquatic plants and their seeds. Such feeding habits seem to favour an association with shallower waters, which means that birds may have to move on if the weather turns cold and the waters begin to freeze over.
Weather may also be contributing to a change in the numbers of pochard wintering here. In particular, the run of mild winters may have led to some of our visiting pochard ‘short-stopping’ and chosing to remain on Continental waterbodies rather than push further west to our shores and our traditionally milder climate. The changing wintering numbers bring the pochard story almost full circle; it was, after all, a westwards expansion in the pochard’s breeding range that brought this elegant duck to our shores over 150 years ago, illustrating how things can change over time.