There is no specific seasonal trigger for me to post about this species; a couple of relatively recent opportunities to gather some images made me decide to commit.

Our first sight of Shovelers was at WWT Caerlaverock in Dumfries and Galloway. We took the train from Glasgow to Dumfries and eventually managed to summon a taxi to take us to Caerlaverock. It was a dark day and there wasn’t a huge amount about on the reserve. We were hoping for a goose spectacular – the reserve is on the Solway Firth which is an important wintering ground, particularly for Barnacle Geese from Svalbard. There were none to be seen which probably means that we’d picked the wrong season.Before a very fraught taxi pick up and ride back to the station against the clock, we did manage to see some Teal, followed by some Shovelers.

When you first set eyes on Shovelers, there really isn’t much else they can be, they are so well named. I have some rotten images from that day and I won’t trouble you with those. However, more recent visits to WWT Slimbridge and Belfast WOW delivered some better stuff, mostly due to our visits being made on brighter days (though there are still some sensitivity issues), and the availability of well-situated hides. At Caerlaverock, the Shovelers had simply cruised past into a reedbed but they went through some repertoire at Slimbridge and Belfast.

Apart from the glorious colour palette (which reminds me of Shelduck, another big favourite), it’s all about the bill with Shovelers. I had not found this site before but it had some useful stuff – for example: “The Jimmy Durante of ducks, the northern shoveler, has perhaps the most unique bill of all waterfowl. Its wide, shovel-like bill with well-developed lamellae functions as a large scoop and sieve for skimming invertebrates and seeds from the water’s surface. It is not uncommon to see groups of shovelers foraging together like pelicans.” I’m thinking that Avocets and Spoonbills are pretty unusual too but we’ll let that drift with the tide. I saw males feeding in close mutual proximity – does this count as social feeding? This was February and most of the birds seemed to be paired up for mating.

The same site also had: “Lamellae are another fascinating adaptation of the waterfowl bill. These small, comb-like structures along the inside of the bill act like sieves and look like teeth, even though ducks and geese don’t chew food. When ducks are searching for food, nonfood items such as mud and water can be expelled while seeds, bugs, or other food items are retained by the lamellae. The top part of the waterfowl bill is called the upper mandible, and the bottom part, the lower mandible. The upper mandible is affixed to the skull, but the lower mandible can move up and down… Shovelers have about 220 lamellae on their lower mandible and 180 lamellae on their upper mandible.”

I examined my photographs with more interest and found one (above) which shows the set quite well (but I’m going to struggle to count so many lamellae) – it’s a small piece of the image blown up quite big so there is a bit of grain. When I saw this cropped image, I thought of Baleen. I also include the uncropped image (below) which shows the glorious disarray of  feathers as the bird preens – so many colours and textures to enjoy here.

The BTO told me that: “The Shoveler is a rather specialized feeder, as its broad bill might suggest, feeding on zooplankton. One consequence of this is that Shoveler tend to favour more ephemeral waterbodies where potential competitors (e.g. fish) cannot survive.” I also found an image which shows (if you zoom up) the lamellae on the upper mandible giving an idea of the length of the individual structures.

I assume these are keratin bristles (as in Baleen). You may have heard Roma Agrawal on Radio 4’s Start the Week talking about the seven basic building blocks of everything in the built or made environment – string being one of the seven. I found her discussion of string, threads and cables engaging and it made me think of the structural proteins collagen and keratin – of course nature got there first, it always does.

Apart from the hardware, Shovelers have also evolved behaviour which involves agency, opportunism and cooperativity: “A Northern Shoveler feeds mainly by drawing water into its bill and then pumping it out through the sides with their tongue, filtering out minute food particles with long comb-like lamellae that line the edge of the bill. The particles mainly consist of tiny crustaceans, molluscs, insects, and their larvae as well as seeds and pieces of leaves and stems of plants. In addition to the food particles they also eat water beetles, small minnows, and snails. Social feeding is common. The shovelers are drawn to feeding areas by other birds feeding in an area. Shovelers take advantage of the food particles churned to the surface by the other birds swimming or wading in the area. Single birds may swim in a tight circle to create a whirlpool to cause food to come to the surface.” [My italics]

At Slimbridge, I watched a pair making a tight clockwise circle for long time. The wind was ripping in over the Severn and the hides facing into the wind weren’t too popular, funnily enough. I was pleased to see the head shaking movements which emphasised the scale of the bill.

This video shows some of the  feeding and courtship behaviour. I’m rotten at photographing birds in flight but I found a very nice image of a pair on the wing at a site called Saltlane. I haven’t seen this site before – I think they have some really high quality images, generally better than mine. Credit where credit’s due.

I feel a bit sorry for Shovelers. I don’t think that they are either sufficiently well known or ubiquitous for authors to seize upon them as motifs for aspects of human aspiration or suffering (The Wild Duck, Wild Geese, etc.)  so I’m not even looking for poetry or other forms of artistic writing about them. Where is the innate poetry in having a huge bill and shaking your head about a lot? I imagine they get shot quite often too – the females are coloured like Mallard and the green head of the drake might look perilously familiar and potentially tasty across a gun sight. I tend to shoot first (with the camera) and worry about it later – mind you, a lot of the people I worked with would probably say that summed up my professional life too. Anyway, let’s celebrate these rather marvellously adapted creatures, ninety percent duck, ten percent whale.

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