It’s dark and cold when I walk across the marsh, my boots splashing through the mud and wet grass. Geese, ducks, coots and water rails call from the pools in the damp gloom. I reach the edge of the grey water and scan. Shoveler ducks paddle around, holding their heads just under the surface, using their spatula-shaped bills to sift for food.
There’s a strange, guttural call – brief, rattling, almost like a frog’s croaking. I quickly find the ducks making the noise – on the opposite side of the pool – thanks to their broad, white head stripes gleaming in the darkness. Two male garganeys seem to be competing for a mottled brown female. The peculiar call, often compared to a cricket’s, gave the bird the dialect names of cricket teal and crick. The males fall silent, and one heads off to feed while the other stays with the female. The feeding duck moves along the water’s edge, dropping its beak into the water, and occasionally dipping under, head first.
After swimming and feeding for several minutes, it climbs out into the reeds and weaves back and forth among the brown stems. I watch it move in and out of the margins, looking for plants or insects in the mud. The other two, meanwhile, have stepped on to the grass and are meticulously preening their flight feathers.
The garganey, Anas querquedula, is the only duck species that migrates to the UK in the summer, rather than the winter. It’s a rare breeding bird in Britain, with usually only two breeding pairs recorded in Sussex each year, and around 100 pairs across the whole country. These low numbers may be partly down to the difficulty in finding them – the small, secretive ducks are adept at disappearing into the vegetation.
The sky is brightening and the sun is starting to shine through the cloud. One garganey swims closer, and I can see its smart, intricate markings glistening in the light – striped brown face and breast, speckled grey flanks and pointed black and white feathers hanging across its back. A Cetti’s warbler explodes into short, percussive song from a willow. A chiffchaff and a blackcap also begin to sing from nearby trees.