Clearly it was nice weather for ducks, though it wasn’t raining. Out in the centre of the main lake eight shovelers were circling for food. These bountifully-beaked dabbling ducks like to feed as though on a merry-go-round, paddling in companionable circles as they corral snacks between them. It’s wonderful to watch. Another joy of shovelers is their voice. At times they make an abrupt rattling series of quacks; more mysterious is a high-pitched nasal grunt that’s impossible to describe but definitely contains multiples of the letter z.
Off to the left of the shovelers a single goosander was preening. This is a newer duck on the scene for Whiteknights Lake, a species that has been seen here every winter now for three years but was previously scarce. It’s a relative newcomer to Britain, too, breeding here only since 1871 – not long in the context of evolutionary history. This resplendent male with its clean cream and black lines, bottle green head and hooked beak could be from those adventitious populations in the north and west of the UK, or potentially from further afield in continental Europe. Either way it brings the spirit of wild upland rivers to the heart of our suburban winter, much like the grey wagtail.
Close in, three Cayuga ducks – an American domestic breed – loafed about waiting for bread. We don’t know where this trio came from or if they’ll ever opt to leave. They must have had as tame an origin as the goosander’s was wild, yet their exceptional beauty has found a welcome in our mixed-up suburban wildfowl menagerie.
Welcome too are the Mandarins, elegant denizens of East Asia introduced when this campus was a country estate. Some days they seem to be everywhere, feathers raised like sails as their flotilla cruises in open water. Today was one of those where they melt away, skulking on overhanging branches, or perhaps sulking because many of those branches have recently been cut down to reduce shading. With any luck, though, reduced shading and lower input of dead leaves will be good for the lake’s ecology, leading to even more ducks selecting Whiteknights as their winter home.