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What kind of ducks and wildfowl are in Hertfordshire?

Gadwall pair (c) Derek Moore
Gadwall pair (c) Derek Moore

Many of our winter wildfowl will be migrating south from Northern Europe back to their wintering grounds in the UK and Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s wetland nature reserves provide a perfect habitat for their winter stay. This is due, in part, to the food available for them there, but also the way in which the habitats can accommodate the different ways that they, feed. Did you know wildfowl can be easily divided into two main feeding groups - divers and dabblers.

Simply put, divers dive under the surface of the water and dabblers dabble on and around the surface. Both can be found side-by-side on many of our nature reserves, but it is this difference in feeding behaviour between species that can help you to identify them.

Great British Life: Tufted Duck (c) Neil AldridgeTufted Duck (c) Neil Aldridge

Identifying divers and dabblers

Divers, such as the Tufted Duck, Pochard and Goldeneye, are often found on larger and deeper bodies of water where they can dive far down under the water to feed on a variety of fish, insects, molluscs and plants. These ducks will use their strong webbed feet (and sometimes even their wings) to swim. Sawbills, like the Goosander, are a group of diving ducks that will often chase and catch small fish under the water! The Sawbills, as the name suggests, have a thin, saw-like bill which helps them snatch hold of their prey under water.

Dabblers, such as the Mallard, Gadwall and Shoveler, are common on all bodies of water and are often seen with their ‘bottoms-up’ feeding in the shallows. They will tend to feed on aquatic plants, seeds, molluscs and insects either on or just beneath the water’s surface. When dabblers are ‘bottoms-up’ they will be able to stretch their necks to reach down to nibble on plants and other submerged food. You may see them wagging their tails or kicking their feet in order to keep balance as they do this. The Shoveler lives up to its name by digging through the mud with its shovel-like bill, turning up plant matter and insects.

The difference in the sexes

Male and female wildfowl of the same species can look remarkably different but they will use the same method of feeding, which helps with identification. Male Mallards show a grey and brown body with a striking emerald green head and yellow bill; whereas the females are a patchwork of shades of brown with an orange/brown bill. This is a phenomenon known as ‘sexual dimorphism’ – a systematic difference in form between individuals of different sex in the same species - and it occurs in most wildfowl species. Winter is the best time to start learning how to identify wildfowl as the males often display vibrant and showy breeding plumage. Females can be a little trickier to tell apart, so starting with the males could be a good first step!

Great British Life: Goosander (c) Derek MooreGoosander (c) Derek Moore

Where to spot wildfowl

The Trust’s nature reserves at Tring Reservoirs, King’s Meads in Ware, and Stocker’s Lake in Rickmansworth are some of the best places to spot winter wildfowl in the county and, indeed, nationally.

You can find out more about the nature reserves and species mentioned in this article, and sign up to receive the Trust’s free e-news for a monthly dose of Hertfordshire’s wild news and events on the Trust’s website at


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