Autumn for many birds is the moulting season, and none of the birds here in Aberystwyth go through this process quite as dramatically as the mallard ducks on the Rheidol river.
As the warm days of summer fade into memory so too do the bright, vibrant feathers of the drakes as they lose their summer breeding colours, entering what is known as eclipse plumage.
Quacking mallard drake in eclipse plumage
I find the transformation fascinating and can never resist photographing the ducks during this time of their lives. In just a few short weeks the mallards’ lose their iridescent green heads and dappled brown feathers replace the grey wings and chestnut breast.
Once this disguise is complete the males are almost unrecognisable from the females, their yellow beaks now the only immediately obvious difference between the sexes.
A male in eclipse plumage, with an orange beaked female just visible in the background
Drab and faded mallard drakes
The reason for such dramatic a transformation is to provide camouflage and protect the drakes as they moult, as in doing so they also lose their flight feathers and are temporarily grounded.
Stunted wings as flight feathers are shed and replaced
Without the means to escape predators, the mallards gather together and spend much more time in the relative safety of the harbour ‘gap’ rather than dispersed out across the river as usual. As a result there was quite the welcome when I arrived at the water’s edge this morning!
After satisfying their hunger with a few handfuls of seed the mallards returned to the water and busied themselves with preening, removing any lose feathers and relieving the irritation caused by new feather sheaths pushing through their skin.
Mallard preening at the water’s edge
Another drake preening what remains of his wing feathers
This drake is in the process of regrowing his flight feathers, the blue speculum patch just visible as it begins to erupt from the wing.
Drake regrowing his wing feathers
Despite the lack of impressive colours with which to impress a female, the male ducks have already begun practicing their courtship displays ready to pair up in late autumn once their plumage returns.
Mallard drake display sequence
Check back in a few weeks to witness the mallards transformation and return to their former glory!
All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography ©
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