Eclipse plumage

In the blink of an eye, our summer appears to be over, the hot dry weather making way for the cooler temperatures and moody autumn skies. With the departure of summer the breeding season is now over for most birds, this years young already raised to independence, and attention once again falls to the adults as they take time for some much needed rest and recuperation. Part of this recovery process involves moulting their worn out feathers for a fresh coat of plumage ready for the next season.

Today I ventured down to the harbour edge to catch up with the mallard flock. With their moult already well advanced the usually dispersed flock have congregated together in the relative safety of the shallow water, sticking together whilst they are at this vulnerable stage of life.

A pair of male mallards in eclipse plumage
Preening among the safety of the flock
Safety in numbers

At first glance you may struggle to spot the male ducks, now drab mottled brown birds, unrecognisable from their former dazzling selves, and almost identical to the females.

Female (top) with Male (below) for comparison
Female (left) and male (right) colliding

The purpose of this ‘eclipse plumage’ as it is known, is to camouflage the birds whilst they moult their flight feathers, which renders them temporarily flightless and vulnerable to predators.

This male very obligingly showed off his stunted wings, his new flight feathers just beginning to emerge from the protective sheaths. Ducks are one of few species of birds, to lose all the flight feathers at the same time.

Drake with flight feathers emerging from their sheaths

The females’ moult is much more subtle, with no colour changes. Again here you can see the new flight feathers emerging from the wing tip. She too will be unable to fly at this point.

IMG_1609 (2)
Female mallard growing new flight feathers

Males still retain a subtle hint of bright green iridescence around their head and necks. This and their yellow rather than orange beaks, enables you to identify these disguised drakes among the females.

Mallard drake portrait
Mallard drake and his reflection
Mallard duck (left) and drake (right)
Mallard drake with a twinkle in the eye

All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography 2018 ©

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