With autumn just around the corner and the mallard drakes of Aberystwyth harbour already moulting into their eclipse plumage signalling the end of the breeding season, it looked as though I had missed the opportunity to meet any ducklings this year.
It was therefore a very pleasant surprise last week to stumble across a brand new clutch of eight adorable mallard ducklings. Tiny and vulnerable, they couldn’t have been more than a day or two old.
Many had a tiny ‘egg tooth’ (a sharp spike which helps them break through the egg shell) still visible at the end of their beaks. After a couple of days later the egg tooth, no longer required harmlessly falls off.
Like all waterfowl mallards are born precocial, meaning that they hatch out already well developed and mobile, unlike songbirds who are born blind and helpless. Within just a day of hatching the mother leads her new clutch to water, where they are able to swim and feed themselves quite effectively.
Despite this they are virtually defenceless and will rely on their mother for protection, warmth and to lead them to sources of food for several weeks. It will be at least 50 days or so until they are able to fly and become fully independent from her.
From the moment of hatching the ducklings’ instinct is to stick close to the mother and follow her every move, a process known as imprinting. Any duckling that strays too far or is unable to keep up with the family is at serious risk from opportunistic predators like crows and gulls who will soon pick off any lone stragglers.
I captured as many photos as possible of the youngsters, aware that this may be the last time I see at least some of them. With their lives fraught with danger, mortality among ducklings is high and it is a sad reality that most won’t survive to adulthood.
I will try to monitor the family closely over the next few days and weeks when work and energy allows. In the meantime here are some more highlights of this morning’s encounter.
All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography © 2021
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