Identifying diving ducks

Blog post by The Wildlife Trusts on 11 Jan, 2021

What are diving ducks?

Ducks can be split into two broad groups: dabblers and divers. 'Diving duck' is a loose term that covers a wide range of ducks who feed mainly by diving under the water, whether it's to chase fish, scoop up insects or graze on tasty aquatic plants. Some diving ducks prefer freshwater and are often found on rivers, lakes and reservoirs, others prefer the sea and are usually seen from the coast.  
 

Which diving ducks am I likely to see?

Diving ducks can be seen year-round, but winter brings a boost in numbers as birds arrive from Northern Europe and Russia. Some species, like scaup and smew, are mostly winter visitors and are rarely seen during the summer. 
This quick identification guide covers the more widespread species and some of the rarer diving ducks you may encounter around the UK. Most descriptions refer to birds in breeding plumage, which is the plumage usually seen from autumn through spring. After breeding, they start moulting and males enter an often confusing "eclipse" plumage, where they usually resemble females.
 

The diving duck ID guide

Tufted duck (male)

Our most common diving duck; found on almost any freshwater body and often seen in parks and on urban waterways. Males are easily recognised by their black and white plumage and the long tuft of feathers on their head.
Photo credit: Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

 

Tufted duck (female)

Females are much browner than males. The tuft on their head is much smaller, but still obvious. They sometimes have white feathers around the base of the bill, similar to scaup, but female tufted duck bills have a broad black tip with a ‘hint of’ pale band behind it.
Photo credit: Guy Edwardes2020VISION

 

Scaup

Like the tufted duck, but larger with a rounder head and no hint of a tuft, and only a small amount of black at the bill tip. Males have a pale grey back; females are mottled grey-brown with a white blaze on the face. They are winter visitors and are usually coastal, forming large flocks at some Scottish sites, but can turn up on inland lakes and reservoirs.
Photo credit: Chris Lawrence
 

Pochard (male)

This handsome duck is an uncommon breeding bird in the UK, but a very common winter visitor. Males have a pale grey body with black on the breast and stern, a bright chestnut head with red eye, and a black bill with a blue-grey band across it.
Photo credit: Tom Marshall

 

Pochard (female)

Female pochards aren't as brightly coloured as males. They're mostly grey-brown, with a greyer back and a dark brown head. Young birds resemble females but are more uniform grey-brown. The head shape is distinctive, with a peaked crown and sloping forehead that runs smoothly into the curve of the bill.
Photo credit: Derek Moore
 

Red-crested pochard

These ducks became established in southern-central England after escaping captive collections. Males have a black body with white flanks and a brown back. The head is rusty-orange, often brighter at the top, with a bright red bill. Females are a soft brown, with white cheeks, a rich brown cap and a grey, pink-tipped bill.
Photo credit: Irene Greenwood

 

Goldeneye (male)

Goldeneyes breed in the Scottish highlands, but in winter can be found on lakes, large rivers and coasts around the UK. Males are dazzling with a black and white body and a large, rounded head. The head is glossy and can appear green or purple depending on the light, with a golden eye and a white patch behind the bill.
Photo credit: Fergus Gill/2020VISION
 

Goldeneye (female)

Females have a mostly ash-grey body with a brown head and a white collar. The eye is pale yellow and the bill is dark, usually with a yellow band across it whilst in breeding plumage. Young birds resemble females but are duller and lack the white collar.
Photo credit: Andy Morffew

 

Eider

A large, heavy seaduck with a wedge-shaped bill. Males are strikingly black and white, with a green nape and a black cap. Females are brown with dark barring. They are present year-round off northern coasts, often gathering in large rafts. In winter they wander south and can be seen off other parts of the UK. It is extremely rare to find one inland.Photo credit: Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

 

Sawbills

Sawbills are a group of diving ducks with saw-like serrations on their slim bills, which help them catch and hold fish.
 

Smew

The smallest sawbill is a rare winter visitor to the UK. Males are dazzlingly white, with black markings including a neat black mask behind the bill. Female and immature smews look very similar to each other and are collectively referred to as redheads. They're mostly grey, with white cheeks and a dark chestnut nape, crown and forehead. Most UK sightings are of redheads.
Photo credit: Lauren Booth
 

Goosander (male)

A large, long-bodied duck that breeds on rivers and upland lakes in north and western Britain. In winter, they visit lakes, rivers and reservoirs in other regions and can roost in good numbers on suitable lakes. Males have a dark, bottle-green head, red bill, black back and largely white body. In flight, white patches cover most of their inner wings. Photo credit: Richard Steel/2020VISION
 

Goosander (female)

Females are greyish, with a dark red-brown head that contrasts sharply with the white chin patch and the whiter neck (compare with the subtle blending on a red-breasted merganser's neck). They have a long crest that often hangs behind the head but can be raised into tufts. Immature birds resemble females.
Photo credit: Richard Steel/2020VISION
 

Red-breasted merganser (male)

Slimmer than goosanders, with a narrower bill. Males have a glossy green-black head with a punk-like crest, white collar and streaky brown neck. The back is mostly black and the flanks are grey, with black breast sides showing distinctive white spots. In flight, they have less white on their wing than a goosander. Mostly coastal.
Photo credit: Amy Lewis
 

Red-breasted merganser (female)

Females are grey-brown with a warmer brown head. They are similar to female goosanders, but have a thinner base to the bill, a less reddish-brown head and a shorter, spikier crest. A key difference is that the head colour blends subtly into the paler neck, whereas goosanders show a sharp distinction.
Photo credit: Amy Lewis
Share this

Latest Blog Posts

Bishop's Garden March Update: A Haven for Birds Bishop's Garden March Updat...
by Barry Madden on 01 Apr, 2021
Meet our Diversity Intern Meet our Diversity Intern
by Meg Watts on 25 Mar, 2021
Growing Wild in the City Growing Wild in the City
by Sam Garland on 11 Mar, 2021
International Women's Day 2021: Women in conservation International Women's Day 2...
by Meg Watts on 08 Mar, 2021
World Book Day 2021 World Book Day 2021
by Chloe Webb on 04 Mar, 2021
Remembering Richard Waddingham – farmer and pond conservationist Remembering Richard Wadding...
by Helen Baczkowska on 17 Dec, 2020
Wild verges Wild verges
by Sam Brown on 08 Dec, 2020
Thwaite Common bird box project Thwaite Common bird box pro...
by John Snape on 30 Nov, 2020
Jewels of the autumn Jewels of the autumn
by Ian Senior on 20 Nov, 2020
Walking again at Thorpe Marshes Walking again at Thorpe Mar...
by Chris Durdin on 06 Nov, 2020
Living with spiders Living with spiders
by Norfolk Wildlife Trust on 24 Oct, 2020
In praise of the humble briar In praise of the humble briar
by Robert Morgan on 30 Sep, 2020
Rockpooling at West Runton Rockpooling at West Runton
by Isabelle Mudge on 28 Sep, 2020
The secret world of fungi The secret world of fungi
by Norfolk Wildlife Trust on 18 Sep, 2020
White herons: A pleasure to see – a warning to heed White herons: A pleasure to...
by Robert Morgan on 17 Sep, 2020
Norwich Nature Notes – August Norwich Nature Notes – August
by Roger and Jenny Jones on 14 Sep, 2020
Help for hogs Help for hogs
by Helen Baczkowska on 31 Aug, 2020
The magic of Thompson Common The magic of Thompson Common
by Barry Madden on 29 Aug, 2020
The Great British Snake Off The Great British Snake Off
by Tom Hibbert on 24 Aug, 2020
Grazing goats Grazing goats
by Robert Morgan on 17 Aug, 2020
Norwich Nature Notes – July Norwich Nature Notes – July
by Roger and Jenny Jones on 04 Aug, 2020
Summer in the meadows Summer in the meadows
by Helen Baczkowska on 28 Jul, 2020
Search for the emperor Search for the emperor
by Barry Madden on 07 Jul, 2020
Corncrake at Thorpe Marshes Corncrake at Thorpe Marshes
by Chris Durdin on 29 Jun, 2020