Ducks 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.