BTO: The beautiful teal has real appeal

Teal walking on ice. Picture: Edmund Fellowes/BTO
Teal walking on ice. Picture: Edmund Fellowes/BTO
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One of our local gravel pits, long-disused and now flooded, sometimes holds small numbers of wintering teal, writes the BTO’s Mike Toms.

These delightful little duck are nervous birds, quick to take flight and usually only found on quiet pools and the more remote backwaters of our slow flowing rivers. Larger numbers occur on Suffolk’s coastal grazing marshes during the winter months, where they may be seen alongside wigeon and lapwing, amongst others.

Many of these individuals will be winter visitors, arriving from Scandinavia, the Baltic States and western Siberia to join our largely resident breeding population. The numbers wintering within the UK are of international importance and many thousands may gather on sites around the East Anglian coast each winter. Over recent decades, and as revealed by Bird Atlas 2007-11, we have seen the size of our wintering teal population increase by 40 per cent. Numbers can also vary greatly between years. Being small, teal are particularly vulnerable to severe winter weather and are therefore prone to moving long distances in search of ice-free waters. In cold winters, when many continental waterbodies are frozen, increased numbers of teal reach our shores.

The teal is our smallest native duck. It is also, unquestionably, one of the most beautiful, delicate in structure with an attractive call that echoes across the winter landscape. Breeding plumage males have a chestnut head, with deep green sides, bordered pale yellow. The teal is agile in flight and apt to form densely packed flocks, that whirl and twist around once flushed from the water.

Smaller numbers are present in Suffolk during the summer months, a reflection of the more northerly breeding distribution shown by the species. Most breeding records come from the north of Britain and breeding is rather patchy to the south of a line that runs from Norfolk to Anglesey. In contrast to what we are seeing in its wintering numbers, there has been a marked contraction in the teal’s breeding range within Britain, although it is unclear as to what is behind this change. It could be habitat related, with the loss of the wetland sites that it favours for breeding. As with our other duck, the nest is a shallow scrape lined with leaves, other plant material and a large quantity of duck down. Teal down is generally very dark in its colouration, with each dark feather having a characteristic white


Given the smaller numbers present during the summer months, winter certainly provides the best opportunity to see teal well.

There are a number of good inland sites within the county, including some of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserves, but if you want to see good numbers and enjoy the spectacle of a teal flock in flight, then a trip to some coastal grazing marshes is to be recommended. They are great little birds and well worth the effort.