The snow was “pirling” away last Sunday as I embarked on another monthly wildfowl count. The sky was both laden and leaden, and as a much heavier fall threatened, I quickened my pace round my three allotted lochs.
The large whooper swan herd last encountered in January on Smedheugh Pond had split into two groups, with one group of 11 still there and the remaining 14 having moved on to my second port of call, Whitmuir Loch.
At this second location, it wasn’t the swans which were greatest in number, but wigeon. These lovely little wintering visitors from mainly Scadinavia, numbered around 40 and were immediately recognisable by their high-pitched whistling calls.
They are one of our most attractive little ducks with short necks, steep foreheads and a small bill which is used for cropping vegetation. Its back is grey and the drake’s head is brown with a yellowish streak down its forehead. The wigeon population is relatively stable in the UK with numbers peaking at almost 400,000 during the winter months. Huge numbers can be seen, especially in salt marshes. In one location – the Somerset Levels, more than 51,000 birds were recorded recently.
This is in great contrast to a century ago when they were much sought-after as a tasty delicacy. In an old book of mine dating from around 1903, it reported: “Some of these birds are caught along with Wild Ducks (mallard), in decoy nets and a great many fall victim to the gun of the fowler. They afford the latter excellent sport and are considered by some excellent eating.”
Interestingly, they are the only grazing duck in Britain, feeding almost all the time out of the water. On coastal sites, eelgrass forms the main part of their diet, while inland they target short grass and other low vegetation. Because they are unable to feed on long, rank growth, they nearly always choose areas which have initially been grazed by cattle.
Although primarily a winter visitor, they do occasionally breed in this country. The first known record was from Sutherland in 1834. The latest figures I can lay my hands on reveal that 30-39 pairs are known to breed in the Borders, mostly in the Ettrick Forest area, so it is a tiny proportion of the number of wintering birds.
My final port of call was the biggest loch of all – Lindean Reservoir and as the snow became heavier still, not a single bird was on the water. It was definitely time to head for home.