Ray Colliers Wildlife int he North – Shelduck

w.Park May 13 021Ducks in the Highlands nest in a wide variety of places with most either on the ground or in holes in trees.  The  ground nesting  birds include  mallard  and wigeon and whilst the  female is incubating  the eggs she must rely on her  camouflage to avoid predation.  In contrast some ducks nest in natural holes such as  in trees and these include goldeneye and goosander.  The  habit of nesting in tree holes has helped to  increase the  numbers of breeding  birds by the erection of artificial  nestboxes.  In the case of the goldeneye this has been very much  a success story in recent years and there are now many  nestboxes  being successfully utilised in  Speyside and the surrounding areas.   Natural holes are few and far between as there are not enough very old trees that can form natural holes  that the  ducks can use.

There are around 16 types of duck that  breed in the Highlands  although this includes the rarities such as garganey and scaup.  Of these one of the  more unusual ones is the shelduck that can be found around the coast at virtually any time of  the year.  They are unusual from a number of points of view.  To start with it is an odd  looking duck as it seems mid way in size and posture between a duck and a goose.  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of its life history is that whilst it nests in holes these holes are normally in the  ground.  A good place, for example, is an old rabbit hole.  Shelduck are  also unusual in that many of the adults leave for large concentrations of moulting birds in a few places  in Europe.  The young are then left in “crèches” of more than  one brood and looked after  by a small number of non breeding  adults that we often call “aunties”!  It can be quite amusing seeing large numbers of young shelduck around two or three adults.  

Shelduck are one of my favourite birds and the last time  I was at the RSPB hide at Udale Bay on the Black Isle there were several of them near the edge of the  saltmarsh. The nearest bird was not far from one of the “windows” of the hide and the  photograph I took shows the diagnostic features that make these birds one of the most  attractive of the ducks.   The male shown  in the photograph has the pronounced  knob at the base of the upper beak which is more dominant in the summer months.    This broad beak is blood red in colour  and contrasts  with the bottle green head and neck.   The broad breast  band is chestnut and is very conspicuous,  even when  the birds are in flight.   The generally whitish body plumage is then offset by the pink legs and feet.

Despite the size and conspicuous colouring, the bird are surprisingly secretive in the breeding season and often overlooked. The nest, at the end of a hole,  is formed  from straw and grass with the important addition of down feathers from the breast of the female.  Between 8 and 10eggs are laid and are only incubated by the female and last about 30 days.  The young  are soon very independent  and will feed themselves within hours of hatching.   In the summer there are up to 1,750 pairs of shelduck breeding in Scotland with the winter  numbers up to 7,000 although there is some  debate as to how many of these local  breeding birds or immigrants  from Europe.    One of the  Gaelic names is Cra griadh  which means blood or red goose.