Monday, 1 March 2010


I am no twitcher and in puckish moments have even been known gently to mock the more fanatic godwit seeking nitwits/ nitwits seeking godwits that haunt the Estuary but I do like to watch birds in the wild. I best like those birds who don't themselves twitch, who sometimes stand still and won’t allow themselves to be mistaken. The shelduck qualifies.

All this last week I have been watching the shelducks and drakes of the Estuary at Sowden End. There are four couples of them. At the start of the ebb they feed right under my nose, some swimming, some paddling at the water’s edge. Towards low water they spread out in their pairs along Lympstone Lake, two hundred feet away. When they swim they swim proudly, high in the water so that you can get a proper look at their glory. Like many birds I have met they don’t stop feeding for a minute. Their heads are down more often than they are up. At high water I see a pair of them flying down river low over the water.

The name, properly it is sheld duck, has nothing to do with shells and everything to do with the amazing black, white, chestnut colours of the plumage of both duck and drake. They are wonderfully ‘paint by numbers’. ‘Sheld’ is said somewhere in England to be a dialect word and derives from Low German and might mean pied or variegated or speckled or shimmering. Take your pick! The shelduck has beautifully defined patches of colour, you could quilt it, and a fiery red bill. The drake has a somewhat discomforting fiery red knob on his fiery red bill. The Germans call the shelduck Brandente, fire duck.

They are the most handsome of birds and well worth a watch or two.

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