Ducks: dabbler or diver? – Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust  

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Ducks: dabbler or diver?

Winter into spring is a wonderful time to see wildlife, and birds especially. As the cold grip of the Arctic winter takes hold on the lakes, pools and marshes of Northern Europe and Russia, huge numbers of swans, ducks and geese retreat to the relative warmth of the UK. The UK’s lakes, rivers, reservoirs and coasts offer a winter home to an estimated 2.1 million ducks!

Ducks can be split into two broad groups: dabblers and divers. As the name suggests, diving ducks feed mainly by diving underwater, using their strong feet (and sometimes their wings) to swim and chase fish, scoop up insects or graze on tasty aquatic plants. These ducks can be seen year-round, but winter brings a boost in numbers as migrant birds arrive. Some species, like scaup and smew, are mostly winter visitors and are rarely seen during summer.

Pair of mallards © Jon Hawkins Surrey Hills Photography

Pair of mallards © Jon Hawkins – Surrey Hills Photography

Examples of diving ducks you may spot (though some are more widespread than others) include pochard, tufted duck, scaup, goldeneye, eider, smew, goosander and red-breasted merganser. The latter three species are known as sawbills, a sub-group of ducks so named for the saw-like serrations on their slim bills that help them catch and hold fish.

Dabbling ducks, however, feed predominantly at the surface, sometimes even grazing on land. Many dabblers can often be seen upending, with their heads underwater and their hind parts in the air.

Species of dabbling ducks you may chance your binoculars upon include mallard, gadwall, wigeon, pintail, shoveler and teal. There are helpful tips to help identify each of these ducks on the Wildlife Trust website at

One useful trick for identifying ducks (especially females) is to examine the speculum. The speculum is a coloured patch on the secondary flight feathers, which are the feathers at the trailing edge of the wing, close to the body. The speculum is often a distinctive colour and can easily be seen in flight, and often when birds are swimming or standing.

Also consider that for some ducks, the plumage of males and females of the same species can look markedly different. This applies to many, but not all, birds.

The Wildlife Trusts cares for many wetland nature reserves across the UK, providing the perfect habitat for our breeding ducks and winter visitors. In our region, Blashford Lakes and Farlington Marshes are two Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust nature reserves that boast healthy duck populations.

Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, Beechcroft House, Vicarage Lane, Curdridge, Hampshire, SO32 2DP