Country diary: iridescent beauties, pavilioned in splendour

Buxton, Derbyshire: The drake mandarin duck ranks among the Earth’s most beautiful birds

The Pavilion Gardens in my home town are a wonderful civic amenity. They’re threaded by the young River Wye and feature several lakes where wildfowl have gathered for as long as I can remember. They were part of my daily walk to school and I recall vividly one morning how the duck there managed to subvert my sense of natural order as much as if I had suddenly seen a sheep catch and kill a rabbit.

By the age of 12, I was accustomed to mallards as waddling dabblers, which would appear in spring with chocolate-box-cute chicks in train. Occasionally I even spooked females off nests and then wondered at their trove of olive eggs, whose down bed still carried her blood’s warmth when I bent to touch it. That morning in the “Pavvy Gardens”, however, I was stunned to see a mallard surface from a dive with a fair-sized crayfish clamped in its beak and proceed to eat it.

As I engaged this 50-year-old memory I was delighted to find that the gardens still carry a capacity for surprises. The drake mandarin duck ranks among the Earth’s most beautiful birds. His breast is iridescent burgundy and bounded by a complex “mayoral chain”, with two dark and two white bands. The shining head is dominated by sweeping white brows, but also by ridiculously elongated chestnut “whiskers” that brush back and forth about the forebody as his head moves. Most people note the rufous sails that are formed by just two massively enlarged tertial feathers on the wings. Yet I must mention finally the soft umber flanks, which carry the most exquisitely complex vermiculation.

Towards the end of the 20th century, this Asiatic import began a slow progress north from the home counties and was first recorded wild in Derbyshire in 1963. Since then Aix galericulata has found the Wye and Dove to its liking, presumably because of the abundance of shaded water and tree holes in which to nest. Yet to find 20 of these ducks, ancient symbols of love and marital fidelity, on my old school walk was like chancing on jewels shining in a muddy puddle.

Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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