It has felt very wintry in Rutland over the last few weeks. Heavy frosts, frozen lagoons and even the odd flurry of snow have reminded us that we are still in the grip of winter. As I watched large flocks of Teal and Wigeon feeding in the North Arm this morning with a biting northerly wind sweeping cold air down from the Arctic, it was hard to believe that some of the ducks I was watching have migrated to Rutland Water for the winter to escape the cold!
Each winter Rutland Water is a magnet for migrating waterfowl. Species such as Gadwall, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Wigeon and Teal arrive here in their thousands to take advantage of rich foraging at the reservoir. In autumn – when numbers reach their peak – in excess of 30,000 ducks have been recorded at the reservoir. As the winter progresses many of the birds move further south in response to changes in both the weather and reservoir water levels, but in January 2738 Tufted Ducks and 2681 Wigeon were still present when the monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count was made.
So where exactly are the birds coming from? Much is made of the migratory journeys of some of our summer visitors – the Osprey being the best example – but few people realise just how far some of the ducks that spend the winter at Rutland Water have flown. However, thanks to several duck ringing projects that have been carried out at the reservoir, we know more than you might think. Take the Tufted Duck for example. These diminutive diving ducks are present at Rutland Water throughout the year; with a few pairs rearing young each summer. You might be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that all Tufted Ducks are relatively sedentary; but that couldn’t be further from the truth. An adult male Tufted Duck ringed at Rutland Water on 21st February 1997 was found dead in Siberia, Russia, nine years later, some 3985km from the reservoir; just inside the Arctic Circle. Given that this bird is likely to have flown back and forth between Siberia and Rutland Water each winter, it is likely to have migrated 80,000 kilometres in its lifetime: the equivalent of two times around the Earth! And it’s not alone; two other Tufted Ducks ringed at Rutland Water have been found dead in Russia, with others in recovered in Finland, Denmark, Germany and France.
It is not just Tufted Ducks that make long migrations. A female Wigeon that was ringed at Rutland Water in December 1999 was shot in Siberia six months later. The bird was killed 200 kilometres south of the record breaking Tufted Duck and very close to where another Rutland-ringed Tufted Duck was recovered just a week later. Each of these birds was spending its summer on wetlands along the River Ob river valley. The Ob is the world’s seventh longest river; flowing through vast areas of steppe, taiga, and tundra as it winds its way north through Siberia. The floodplains of the Ob – characterised by many tributaries and lakes – are the perfect place for species such as Tufted Duck and Wigeon to breed. The river is icebound at Salekhard – very close to where one of the Tufted Ducks was summering – from the end of October to the beginning of June and so the birds from Rutland Water had probably only just arrived when they were either shot or found dead.
This winter, after a break of around ten years, we have begun duck ringing at the reserve again. The ducks are attracted into a 3m x 3m mesh enclosure with grain. Then, once they have entered the enclosure through one-way funnels, they can be caught with a net easily and with minimal stress to the birds. They are then ringed and released within a matter of minutes. Mallard have been by far the most regularly caught species so far, but we have ringed smaller numbers of Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Teal and Coot (see table below).
The conservation value of ringing can not be overstated. For migratory species such as Tufted Duck, Wigeon and Teal it is vital that conservation effort takes place along the whole of the birds’ migratory range. Duck ringing at Rutland Water -and numerous other sites around the UK – is enabling us to understand the migratory patterns of many different species; and in doing so, helping to identify key sites in need of protection. Furthermore, it links us with other parts of the world and demonstrates the need for international collaboration between countries along the migratory flyways.
So next time you’re watching a flock of Tufted Ducks or Wigeon at Rutland Water, just think that in a few months’ time those same birds could be raising young in Siberia.