Who needs whiskey when you’ve got ducks? In Britain we have around 20 different species of regularly occurring wild ducks, some of these are resident and breed here, others only appear for the winter. But one, just one, has a different strategy from all the rest – it isn’t resident, it won’t be found here in the winter, instead it migrates here just for the summer to breed before returning to Africa. This duck tags along with the Swallows and Cuckoos and is eagerly awaited in early spring just like them – it is called the Garganey. 

Now Garganey is an odd name, but then a lot of ducks have odd names that don’t seem to mean anything – Wigeon is another one. Apparently, Garganey comes from a Lombard word ‘garganell’ which itself comes from the Latin ‘gargala’ which means ‘tracheal artery’ and doesn’t that make perfect sense?

Name aside, this is an interesting duck – and not just because it is a summer migrant – it is also a rare British breeding bird with less than 100 pairs in the whole country, it is also very pretty. The first time I ever saw this species was many years ago in Kent; when John and I saw a male that had been reported by someone else at Stodmarsh nature reserve – it must have been over 5 years back. Since then I have not had a whiff of this species, despite living in a county that has one of its breeding strongholds.

Having not seen this very attractive bird for a very long while and this year also being the year I am trying to see 220 bird species, I have been quite keen recently to try and catch up with a Garganey. Despite several being reported locally, none were very close and none hung around for more than a day, so the best I could do was keep a sharp eye open at any wetlands I visited. Then last Saturday, a pleasantly warm and sunny day with a light breeze, I decided at the last minute to take the dog for a walk at the nearby Ardingly reservoir, just because it was convenient and I didn’t have time to go farther afield.

It was a nice walk down the hill, through warm meadows and past fresh-green woods and hedgerows that were just starting to glow a hazy azure as the Bluebells came into flower. I didn’t see many birds before I reached the reservoir, just a singing Blackcap or two, then when I crossed the footbridge over the eastern arm of the reservoir a Grey Wagtail flew past – they bred here last year. A wild meadow slopes down to the water from the wood here and a small bird-watching hide sits on the shore so I was headed for that when I spotted three small ducks asleep on the water about half-way out.

From their size and the hint of a white eyestripe that I could see with the naked eye I assumed that they might be Mandarin ducks – but when I looked through my binoculars I got quite a shock. It was immediately apparent that all three were male Garganey, a species which I had on my mind but which I had never expected to see in this place on that day! They must have noticed me as they began to shuffle off (can you shuffle on water?) towards the far bank, but at least I got to see their stunning big white eyestripes as they raised their heads out from under their wings.

I wondered if there might be any more on the reservoir, as three is a good number, so I entered the hide and looked out over the rest of the east arm. The sun was unfortunately glaring strongly off the water, so all the birds were silhouettes, but not long after I had been looking a fourth male Garganey swam out from under some trees and across the water close enough for me to see its lovely plumage.

In order to get out of the glare I walked further around the bank, whereupon I saw another three small duck that turned out to be another two males and one female Garganey. Making seven in total!! It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing a bird that you’ve really wanted to see, that you haven’t seen in ages, in a place that you didn’t expect to see them and for there to be seven of them! Considering that most Garganey are seen as singles or in pairs, and the average number seen each year in Sussex is about 50-60, seven is not shabby at all.

Three of the six male Garganey – unmistakable!

Apart from the bold, bright-white stripe over the eye, I noticed that they also have these long, delicate black-and-white striped scapular feathers hanging over their backs which look most stylish. The males were also occasionally making an unusual grunting sound, which is odd as usually in ducks the males are silent or rarely call; apparently it is this noise that their Latin specific name ‘querquedula’ is meant to represent. A bit of a stretch if you ask me.

There are few things better in birding than finding your own quality birds and if I’m honest I would say that finding these Garganey was one of the very best birding experiences that I’ve ever had in my life, so far. They really are beautiful, beautiful birds and if you get a chance to see one then take it, and maybe you’ll know how I feel.