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Ducking and Diving..

Unusual diving behaviour in mallard.


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Hi, Seasonal Ranger Liam here.

In the modern world, where we have instant access to all information, and the knowledge of millions of people at our fingertips, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking we know it all, and have seen everything. The everyday, and the mundane should be predictable, and throw up no surprises. In such situations, keeping eyes and minds open can lead to new discoveries, where we thought we knew it all.

Take the mallard duck. Yes, the common, innocuous, brown duck found on every pond across the country – although currently on the Birds of Conservation Concern amber list, because of declining numbers. We all know the mallard – it’s what “duck pond” is all about: taking the kids to the local park to throw bread (corn, peas, salad, grapes, and lettuce are better things to feed them), and watch them squabble and quack their way around the pond. We all know the mallard, and their behaviours should be well known and unsurprising. Right?

Well….. wrong.

While out on patrol last week, I observed some very unusual behaviour amongst a number of our resident mallards at Castle Semple. Mallards are classed as “dabbling” ducks: their feeding strategy is to upend themselves, with their tails in the air, and pick off weeds and foodstuffs from the bottom of the loch. They don’t dive underwater, unless to escape a predator, or to avoid the amorous approaches of frisky males (there’s a whole other essay about mallard mating behaviours, but it’s not suitable for children, and we’ll not go there today!) So I was hugely surprised to see a number of them habitually diving for food. In fact, I doubted my own observations that they were actually mallard – I was racking my brains trying to think what diving ducks they could be….. too small and wrong shape for an eider, too large for a tufted …. some weird hybrid, or obscure vagrant?

I contacted some friends in the British Trust for Ornithology, and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club – they’d never observed this behaviour before either. A search of the literature threw up a couple of references from America, but nothing from the UK, and it appears to be a rare, and new behaviour amongst a few of our flock here at Castle Semple. Which just goes to show that if we approach nature with humility, an open mind, and keen eyes, there are new discoveries awaiting us on every corner.

I captured a snippet of video…. at the very start, you can see a duck going under, which resurfaces to the left of the swan a full 10 seconds later. Then right at the end, the duck at the top left of the picture dives under. Or why not come on down, and I can guide you onto them, to watch for yourselves?

Thanks go to NatureScot for funding this post; to engage with the public, promote responsible access, and encourage an awareness of our natural heritage and its conservation. #NatureScot

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