Dip into the world of dabbling ducks

Bertie Gregory

A duck swims on water, we know that much. But do you know just how many different species of duck are seen at Brockholes, and what makes them all unique?

Our lakes, rivers, reservoirs and coasts are a winter home for an estimated 2.1 million ducks! 

Ducks can be split into two broad groups: dabblers and divers. As the name suggests, diving ducks feed mainly by diving underwater, using their strong feet (and sometimes their wings) to swim. Dabbling ducks, however, feed predominantly at the surface, sometimes even grazing on land. Many dabblers can often be seen upending, with their heads underwater and their bums in the air.

We’ve pulled together an introduction to the dabbling ducks you’re most likely to see this winter, with a quick guide on how to recognise both males and females. So why not wrap up warm, head to Brockholes and search for some spinning shovelers, whistling wigeon or pristine pintails.

Mallard (male)

The classic duck. Males have a yellow bill and a green head, separated from the brown breast by a thin white collar. The body is mostly grey with a black rump. The black middle tail feathers curl upwards. The speculum is dark blue with a white border.

Female Mallard duck and babies

Bertie Gregory

Mallard (female)

Females are a streaky brown all over. They have a patchy orange and black bill (see gadwall for comparison). Like males, they have a dark blue speculum with broad white borders. This is obvious in flight and can sometimes be seen when the duck is on the water or ground.

Male Gadwall Duck

Rich Andrews

Gadwall (male)

Slightly smaller and slimmer than a mallard. Males are mostly grey, with a wavy pattern (known as vermiculations) that is strongest on the breast. They have slightly browner heads, brown feathers on the back and a black rear. The bill is greyish-black and the speculum is small and white.

Gadwall Female

Leslie Price

Gadwall (female)

Females are very similar to female mallards, though slightly smaller and slimmer. The best features to look for are the small white speculum on the wing (much smaller than in male gadwalls) and the bill, which is dark with a neat orange stripe along each side (patchier orange and black in mallard).

Shoveler duck

Gary Cox

Shoveler (male)

Similar size to a mallard. Males have a glossy green head, a yellow eye and a huge, broad dark bill. The belly and sides are a rich chestnut brown and the breast is white. The speculum is green, with a white border at the front and a large blue patch on the forewing. Shovelers often feed in pairs or groups, spinning around each other.

Shoveler Duck

Amy Lewis

Shoveler (female)

Resembles a female mallard, but with a huge, broad bill (paler than the males). The speculum is a dull green (blue in mallard), with a white border at the front and no white on the trailing edge (mallard has a white trailing edge).

Male Teal Duck

Leslie Price

Teal (male)

Our smallest duck (about 2/3 the size of a mallard). The head is chestnut with a yellow-bordered green patch on each side. The body is grey with a horizontal white line running along it, and a yellow patch either side of the rear. The speculum is bright green.

Female Teal Duck

Chris Gomersall

Teal (female)

A very small, streaky brown duck with a small, dark bill that often has orange towards the base. The speculum is bright green, with a broad white bar in front of it and a narrower one at the trailing edge of the wing.

Male wigeon

Danny Green

Wigeon (male)

Smaller than a mallard, with a short neck and small, blue, black-tipped bill. They have a round, chestnut head with a creamy-yellow patch on the forehead. The body is mostly grey, with a white belly, pinkish breast and black rear. The speculum is green with a large white patch in front of it. Often gives a whistling call.

Wigeon Female

Nick Upton

Wigeon (female)

Females are mostly a mottled brown, though the shades can vary from greyish-brown to a richer red-brown. They have a small, round head and short, blue bill with a black tip. The belly is white and the speculum is dark and they lack the large white patch of the male. Often in large groups, grazing.

See dabbling ducks in action

Dive deeper into the world of dabbling ducks with our video identification guide!

Find out more