Teal are small ducks that are found throughout Courier Country in boggy pools, reed-fringed margins of lochs, and estuaries. They are often active at night.
Dusk begins to settle across the strath and from my vantage point on a wooded ridge I spot a pair of roe deer cautiously making their way across the haugh (flood meadow), periodically pausing and then moving-on again as they graze by a large rush-fringed pool.
An owl hoots a long and quavering ‘hu…hu-hoooo’ before falling silent once more as it focuses on its quest for mice and voles. Then, another noise floats across the air, the soft and flute-like call from a gathering of teal, a mere whispering in the wind. The call is so gentle and hypnotic that it is the very music of nature itself.
Teal are such attractive little ducks, so perfect in form, and despite the fading light I can just discern their outlines through my binoculars as they feed in the shallow margins of the pool, whistling to each other all the while. They are flighty birds, forever on the alert, and will take to the air at the slightest hint of danger.
The early 20th century field naturalist Thomas Coward described their calls so eloquently: “There are few more talkative ducks than the teal; birds in winter flocks chuckle conversationally, and on the meres, the loud clear call, a short sweet whistle, rings out incessantly. When the drakes are courting the low double whistles run into a musical jumble, a delightful chorus.”
Later in the week, I’m down by the river estuary where I come upon more teal feeding by the muddy water’s edge, their bills eagerly sifting the glutinous ooze for minute creatures. The estuary is a haven for waterfowl because it remains ice-free no matter how cold the weather turns, and food is always abundant.
The teal will have to remain alert, for on a previous visit I watched a peregrine falcon swoop above the estuary on powerful wings, scattering teal and mallards into the air. Teal are a favoured prey for peregrines, but they are challenging to catch when in flight, as they keep together, turning and twisting all the time, and engaging in spectacular corkscrewing dives.
The estuary is also home to goosanders, its rich waters providing excellent fishing for flounders, sea trout and eels. It is fascinating to watch goosanders as the hunt, for they periodically dip their heads under the water to look for fish, which in effect is an avian version of snorkelling.
I adore the estuary at this time of year, and there is no better time to visit than at dusk when scores of pink-footed and greylag geese fly-in from their inland feeding grounds to settle upon nearby mudbanks for the night. The air is full of their excited honking: a cacophony of noise.
Like the whistling teal, the sound of geese is part of winter’s soul, so enchanting and mesmerising that one could never tire of listening to their calls sweeping across the wildness of the estuary.