Ducking out

Tufted Duck, credit Dave Kilbey

Tufted Duck, credit Dave Kilbey - Credit: Archant

I love the fickleness of March, a month in which one day the painfully bright late-winter sun can paint our county with all the promise of spring, yet on the next the still leafless trees and the hopeful buds of willows are wracked by winter’s unrelenting wind and rain. March is a month to be on your toes, an every-season month, a month of change.

Along our coast, in marshes from windblown Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) Holme Dunes in the west to NWT Hickling and Martham Broads, hunkering in the east in the shelter of Winterton Dunes National Nature Reserve, March’s many changes are to be seen in ducks. Precocious mallard mothers, many of them, are on their egg-laden nests in March, and some already have tiny blobs of warmth paddling in circles through the icy water at their sides. The drakes, their bottle-dark heads aglow in the winter sun, vent their frustration at the absent ducks, bowing to one another in conspiratorial trios, raising their tails to the sky and piping like oversized teal.

Many gadwall and tufted ducks will stay to breed here too, though not for long weeks to come. Tufted drakes, rounded and buoyant in the wintry water, quiver their velvety crests and flash their jewelled eyes at their dispassionate Bournville-brown ducks. A gadwall duck’s life in March seems much harder – to our anthropogenic eyes – assailed as she is by many black-ended drakes, flanking her as she swims, chasing her as she flies, forcing on her their attentions until she relents and lays eggs bearing their genes into another generation.

Those ducks who will not stay to breed are restless and fidgety now, called by instinct and by the lengthening of days to leave the waters of Norfolk and head north to the sites of their breeding. Wigeon, the drakes’ heads round and glossy as fresh conkers, are bound for far-north Russia. Teal, dapper and dazzling, already flashing in courtship the butter-yellow badges on their tail-sides, will most likely travel less far, perhaps to the wet north of Fennoscandia. Even before their flight these birds are in pairs, the teal drakes piping softly to marshal their dark, diminutive ducks.

By contrast with ducks, many of Norfolk’s geese have left our marshes by March. The tens of thousands of garrulous pinkfeet which wintered by Wash, coast and Broads are already bound for Iceland. The handful of taiga bean geese which winter in the wind-harried marshes of the Yare will most likely have left by now too, winging their way to Fennoscandia with our tiny teal, dropping their harsh cackles to earth as they go. The coast-hugging brents, the vast majority of which are dark-bellied birds from high arctic Russia, will be with us a while yet, some of them purring and babbling in the saltmarshes of north Norfolk until early May.

Even as these northern puddle-people leave us, taking with them their cackles, their burbles and their peeps, the void of sound is filled by resident birds breaking into song - clattering chaffinches and shrill song thrushes – and by March’s chiffchaff, herald of the southern migrants and the first crack in the Pandora’s box of spring.

For more of Norfolk’s wildlife in March, visit

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