In Search of…

Dabbling Ducks

A male gadwall on land
Image Source; Andreas Trepte (

The Nature Nook’s latest wildlife-spotting walk took Alex and I to the Clennon Valley Lakes, a hidden gem just south of Paignton Zoo, in search of ducks. Not mallards or tufted ducks, mind you – we’d already seen those. No, we were looking for a couple of slightly more uncommon species. We had received a tip-off that two dabbling ducks – the gadwall and the pintail – had been recently spotted at the lakes and we thought it would be relatively easy to add them to our list of birds.

The pintail (or at least the male) is a stylish, elegant bird with a slender neck, a chestnut-coloured head, and extended tail feathers. Only small numbers actually breed here, but around 30,000 spend the winter with us. The gadwall (seen in the image at the top of this article) isn’t quite as exciting-looking. In fact, as far as ducks go, even the male looks fairly nondescript. I had seen gadwall before and, in my mind, I remembered a fairly forgettable brown-and-grey bird.

The core of the gadwall’s Eurasian range is in Russia. The origin of our English breeding population remains unclear, although it probably originates, at least partially, from birds released in Norfolk during Queen Victoria’s reign. The story goes that they came from just one pair of ducks that was captured in a Norfolk duck decoy in 1850 and pinioned before being released again. Unable to return to their summer breeding grounds in Eurasia, this pair was forced to nest here and later attracted more migrant birds. Escapees from private wildfowl collections and deliberate releases also boosted numbers, and there are now thought to be over 1,000 breeding pairs of gadwall in the country. Like the pintail (and most other waterfowl, in fact), the wintering population is much higher (around 25,000 individuals), amplified by arrivals from the continent.

A male pintail
The pintail has one of the largest distributions of any birds and was once the world’s most numerous duck, although the mallard, following a large number of human introductions, now holds that mantle.
Image Source: Frank Schulenburg

The Clennon Valley Lakes were created in the 1980s by Torbay Council to provide a space for wildlife and it is now considered one of Torbay’s most important wetland sites. We certainly spotted several species of waterfowl as we walked around them. A small group of male mallards were chasing an unfortunate female, first across the water and then into the air. A pair of mute swans were in the early stages of constructing a nest in the shallows. A few Canada geese were floating serenely across the smooth, glassy water. Opposite us on the edge of the dense reed beds, two herons – an adult and a juvenile – stood as still as statues. We even caught a brief glimpse of a dumpy little grebe before it skittered off across the surface of the lake at high speed.

In the trees and bushes surrounding the lakes, neverending song and flickers of movement revealed the presence of many small birds. Blue tits and great tits occasionally flitted over the path. Robins sang boldly from overhanging branches, in full, splendid view. Dunnocks skulked about in low-lying vegetation. A small flock of long-tailed tits was on the move, shooting in front of us; they vanished deep into a bush, but their high-pitched, needling calls could still be heard.

Two tame Muscovy ducks sat on the lakeside and allowed us to get very close to them. Wild Muscovy ducks are native to Central and South America, but their domesticated descendants are often seen on farms and in wildfowl collections in Europe and other parts of the world. They are a big, heavy, and largely silent breed. Having escaped from farms and holdings, they have quietly spread throughout England and there are now self-sustaining populations becoming established in many parts of the country.

Almost all varieties of domestic duck are derived from the wild mallard. The only one that is not is the domestic Muscovy duck, which is, of course, descended from the wild Muscovy.
Image Source: Rhododendrites

Further ahead, there were more waterfowl. More geese. More mallards.

Wait, that wasn’t a mallard.

A duck that I had initially dismissed as a female mallard turned out to have grey and brown plumage, which, upon closer inspection, was intricately patterned. It was a male gadwall, and I could instantly see that this duck was not as plain as I had remembered. Sure, he wasn’t as gaudy or as eyecatching as most other male ducks, but his plumage was nonetheless subtly, quietly attractive.

A male gadwall swimming on a pond
The gadwall’s name has been in use since at least 1666, when it appeared in the first-ever list of British birds (compiled by Christopher Merret), although no one seems to know the origin of the word.
Image Source: Psubraty from Pixabay 

A female soon appeared next to the male. She looked even more like a female mallard; the only noticeable difference I could make out was the presence of a white speculum (wing patch), which in mallards is a glossy purple. If we hadn’t been actively looking for gadwall, we may well have overlooked them, as I suspect many other people do. Certainly, these underrated birds were receiving virtually no attention from passers-by, especially when compared to the friendly, non-native Muscovy ducks. From now on, though, I’m going to take more time and care when I’m scanning a lake for waterbirds, just in case there are a few gadwalls lurking unobtrusively in the background.

We didn’t find the more classically attractive pintail, but we were still pleased with our gadwall sighting. We plan on returning to the Clennon Valley Lakes at dusk in the near future, to try and find bats and owls, but next time we’ll be heading over to Berry Head near Brixham in search of seals.

Also seen on this walk: Crow, magpie

Running Total (Bird Species): 33


  • Jason Woodcock

    With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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