The third group of wildfowl bird is formed by ducks. This is not a large coherent group but is dived into "dabbling ducks", "diving ducks", so-called "hybrids", "sea ducks" and last but not least "sawbills". As is customary with wildfowl and espcecially with ducks, they are not as easily to be identified as one might think. 


mallard Anas platyrhynchos


Dabbling Ducks


Dabbling ducks feed from the water surface. They are large-sized to small-sized ducks and we find them usually on lakes, ponds, river, shallow water, wetlands. Quite often their posture in water is upending while they search for food in shallow waters.


They are able to take off water without prior running over the surface as we know it from swans e.g. Their sexes are markedly dissimilar. Mostly ♂ are much more colourful than ♀. During summer ♂ change into their winter plumage; during that time ♂ change their flight feather, making them flightless. The flightless period takes about 3-4 weeks, during which ♂ can hardly ever be seen on the water. Mostly they spent daytime hidden in riparian vegetatio or in reed zones. At that time ♂ adopt a more ♀-like plumage.


Species of dabbling ducks distributed across the Western Palearctic are:

  • Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
  • Gadwall (Anas strepera)
  • (Northern) Pintail (Anas acuta)
  • (American) Black Duck (Anas rubripes)
  • (Northern) Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
  • (Eurasian) Wigeon (Anas penelope)
  • American Wigeon (Anas americana)
  • Marbled Duck (Marmaronetta angustirostris)
  • (Eurasian) Teal (Anas crecca)
  • Garganey (Anas querquedula)
  • Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors)
  • Baikal Tail (Anas formosa)


Tufted duck Aythya fuligula
Tufted Duck


Diving Ducks


Diving ducks is a group name applied to ducks who almost exclusively feed by diving. We will hardly ever see them upending. Sizes vary between fairly small to large. Their food covers vegetarian elements but they are also omnivorous. Although sea ducks are also diving ducks, they are explained in detail further below.


Important identification features are a ratehr heavy body, rather short wings - compared to dabling ducks - they can only take off from the water surface after prior running over the surface (swan-like). Pochards are mainly to be found in shallow and eutrophic lakes. Sea ducks are mainly living in marine environments.


Nests are build on the ground and are mainly scraped moulds which are lined with green plants from the surroundings. Only the ♀ will tend to the juveniles once those have hatched. The ♂ leaves after the clutch has hatched.


Species of diving ducks distributed across the Western Palearctic:

  • (Common) Pochard (Aythya ferina)
  • Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina)
  • Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca)
  • (Greater) Scaup (Aythya marila)
  • Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
  • Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)
  • White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala) - North Africa, Mediterranean, Black Sea, Caspian Sea
  • Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamicensis) - American species, introduced to Britain, now beginning to spread across Europe


eider duck
Female Eider


Sea Ducks


Although they are also "diving ducks" a special explanation is designated to them. A name says it all and, matter-of-factly, sea ducks are perfectly adapted to a live at sea. They spend most of the year in the vicinity of the coast and only return to land for breeding.


Sea ducks are perfectly adapted to diving in the sea and can reach diving depths of about 20 m, with diving times of >60 seconds. In stark contrast to dabbling ducks they have a later maturity and can actually get quite old. The eider e.g. can reach an age of c. 37 years.


In Europe we can watch sea ducks in the entire Wadden Sea area all year round, where we will find breeding birds as well as migrants between late summer, throughout winter and in spring.


Sea Duck species in the Western Palearctic are:

  • (Common) Eider (Somateria mollissima)
  • King Eider (Somateria spectabilis)
  • Steller's Eider (Polysticta stelleri)
  • Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra)
  • Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca)
  • Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)
  • Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)
  • Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)
  • Common Goldeney (Bucephala clangula)
  • Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica)


Sawbills - Goosander




Sawbills are also diving ducks and their sizes vary from rather small to large. Their most prominent identification feature is a slender bill, hooked at the tip. These birds feed on fish. Their bill has tooth-like lamellae along the cutting edges providing a better grip on their prey. There are only three species existing of which two are larger with longer necks.


Sawbills are excellent divers and dive over large distances, diving depths of >10 m, diving time 30 seconds on average. They tend to dive and hunt in groups.


The three species of sawbills distributed in the Western Palearctic are:

  • Smew (Mergellus albellus)
  • Goosander (Mergus merganser)
  • Red-brested Merganser (Mergus serrator)