Autumn waterbirds*

This is the last post for a couple of weeks, because I am heading off to Nepal and Assam. When I return, I will show you what I have seen.

Still in England, this female mallard, Anas platyrhynchos,* was having a very thorough preen. Even very common birds like this are worth watching. First, an ecstatic head scratch:


Then, a good underwing going over, resulting in a rare chance to see the underside of a duck’s wing and indeed a duck’s bill. Not to mention a neck flexibility I can only envy:


And finally a sexy flash of blue as she does the other side:


Preening is not done (entirely) out of vanity. Ducks have a special gland called the uropygial gland at the base of the tail that secretes an oily waxy substance. Here I think she is accessing the gland to collect some oil:


During preening this is distributed through her plumage, and helps keep her waterproof. The spatial micro-structure of her feathers also plays a major role, but without the preen- oil the waterproofing deteriorates significantly over time. (Girardeau et al 2010).

One hundred yards downstream, I was watching a Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, on the wing;


When it landed, I discovered it had come to meet a friend:


I am not sure if this is a pair (they mate for life), but the one on the left has a dark crown, whereas adults are nearly white on top, so I think it is a juvenile, and they may be a teenager and its mother. I have to say they look rather like a long-married elderly couple, hunched and companionable.

*My title was suggested to me by reading Autumn Birds, by John Clare, 1793-1864

The wild duck startles like a sudden thought,
And heron slow as if it might be caught.
The flopping crows on weary wings go by
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they fly.
The crowds of starnels whizz and hurry by,
And darken like a clod the evening sky.
The larks like thunder rise and suthy round,
Then drop and nestle in the stubble ground.
The wild swan hurries hight and noises loud
With white neck peering to the evening clowd.
The weary rooks to distant woods are gone.
With lengths of tail the magpie winnows on
To neighbouring tree, and leaves the distant crow
While small birds nestle in the edge below.

John Clare is for me the greatest English nature poet. He was born a thresher’s son, and spent the last twenty years of his life in a lunatic asylum, yet his poems summon up the natural world of his country childhood. If you haven’t read him, I urge you to do so.

*I Just came back from Robert Icke’s highly original version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which actually includes the words Anas platyrhynchos in the text! But when the (live) duck was produced it was not a mallard at all, but a wigeon!

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