Anas acuta or Pintail is my favourite duck species and I’m sure that I am not alone in this; I am often asked what my favourite bird species is and I am unable to reply because the question is unanswerable and wrong. Birds are so varied in appearance and colour and behaviour that you might as well be asking me what my favourite piece of art is without specifying whether you are asking me about sculpture, film, music, design, painting (and all the sub-genres within painting) or photography. If you asked me what my favourite species of wildfowl or raptor or song-bird or wader or bunting is then I might be able to answer you, so in answer to the question you haven’t asked, my favourite duck is the Pintail.
This gorgeous creature is the epitome of elegance, as you may have guessed from its name the males have thin black tail streamers, its head is a rich velvet-chocolate brown contrasting wonderfully with a curved line of white that starts on the side of the neck behind the eye and gradually widens to cover the breast. Its flanks and back are a steely-grey and finely vermiculated with a black oval at the ‘shoulder’. The wing feathers have black centers edged with white and are held loosely over the back when at rest, in flight they show off the metallic green speculum edged with white and orange. finally it has a butter-cream coloured patch on either side of its body near the rear; set off by the black tail. Both sexes have a dignified appearance in the way they hold their necks and glide smoothly and silently over the water without any squabbling, and although mostly brown in colour the female can still be picked out by the distinctive long neck, pointed tail and calm demeanor.
Pintail are uncommon breeders in Britain with fewer than fifty regular pairs nesting each Spring, but in Winter their numbers are swelled to over 28,000 individuals by migrating birds from the rest of Europe, though they are still not the commonest duck you will see on a Winter lake. Their overall European population has declined in recent decades possibly due to pressure from hunting or loss of breeding sites. If you would like to see these beautiful ducks then head to an estuary, gravel-pit, inland marsh or floodplain during the winter – especially near the coast and pick them out from amongst the large flocks of wigeon and other ducks.