Australia’s rarest waterfowl, the freckled duck, has made a welcome return to the wetlands of the Derwent with two being spotted at Goulds Lagoon, Austins Ferry, earlier this month.
It was with pure coincidence that a species endemic to Australia should arrive just as the duck hunting season was opening in the state.
I’ve seen the freckled duck on several occasions at Goulds Lagoon after I first added it to my checklist of birds spotted in 2013. On that occasion, I had dashed to the reserve on hearing the news of the arrival of a small flock of the ducks, one of only a handful of sightings in Tasmania since records began after European settlement in the early 1800s.
Freckled ducks have been at the centre of controversy on the mainland this year with BirdLife Australia successfully campaigning for the closure to hunters of several wetlands in Victoria where the ducks occur.
The birding organisation had argued that in past years freckled ducks had been shot by hunters, even though they are wholly protected.
Because of their rarity in Tasmania, freckled ducks are unlikely to fall in the sights of Tasmanian duck hunters, although I would not want to suggest that local shooters target birds outside of the five species that are allowed to be hunted during the season. These are chestnut teal, grey teal, wood duck, Australian shelduck (mountain duck) and Pacific black duck.
The freckled duck is certainly uncommon on the mainland with an estimated population of less than 20,000. They breed in the areas around the Lake Eyre Basin, western NSW and south-west Queensland, often after flooding. After successful breeding years they move out of their breeding areas as the interior dries, seeking better conditions. If drought persists they irrupt into coastal areas, some flying as far south as Tasmania.
Unfortunately, these irruptions often coincide with the wildfowl shooting season in the states where hunting is allowed. These include South Australia along with Victoria and Tasmania.
It’s easy to understand why these shy, beautiful ducks win the hearts of birders, even though they are not as colourful as some other species that attract the eye. As their name suggests, freckled ducks have a freckled pattern over their entire grey-brown bodies - they are also called oatmeal ducks – and are also distinguished by a slightly crested head and a bill in the shape of a dish. In the breeding season the males have a bright red area between nostrils and forehead on the upper mandible.
These dabbling ducks are unusual in having a feeding method called “suzzling”. The word refers to the action of filter feeding, where the duck sucks particles into the bill tip and expels water near the bill base, as it feeds on seeds and small crustaceans.
Quotas for duck hunting in Tasmania are based on the apparent abundance of the five listed species but BirdLife Tasmania argues these figures can be inflated by duck arrivals from the mainland, especially in times of severe drought.