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 Pintail - Fact File
Anas acuta
A few pairs breed, mostly in Scotland. Locally common as a winter visitor, especially on large estuaries such as the Mersey and Dee.
Winters mostly on estuaries, with smaller numbers on freshwater inland.

Attractive male unmistakable with it's chocolate head with white neck stripe, and very long tail. Females' tail is shorter, but still longer than other dabbling ducks. Both sexes have slim grey bill.

58cm (23")


Ever distinctive and elegant, the pintail is one of my all-time favourites. I remember the first occasion I chanced upon this attractive wildfowl when rambling along the footpath from isolated Berney Arms station along the north shore of Breydon Water towards Yarmouth. A pair were swimming in a flooded bomb crater created by the Luftwaffe. The drake sported full plumage with chocolate-brown head contrasting with gleaming white breast.

Breydon regularly attracts pintail. A peak was attained during the mid-1970s when totals approached 300 birds. During January 1996, 172 were in residence. Pintail stay on this estuary from mid-September until late April. But there are no other concentrations in the whole of Broadland.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Cley reserve has become the pintail stronghold on the north Norfolk coast. Here, reed-fringed pools provided undisturbed daytime resting for over 500.

They are partly nocturnal feeders, but whenever I watch them a number are up-ending in the water. Long necks enable them to reach deeper than other dabbling ducks for seeds, roots and tubers of water plants. Others sit quietly, some preening; others dozing.

Variable totals of pintail put in appearance at Snettisham on the east shore of the Wash. These may well be the same birds at times congregating on flooded pits at Tottenhill on the fen borders. It is in the fens that the most spectacular numbers of pintail appear.

Pintail in flightThe enlarged observatory at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Welney refuge provides splendid viewing in early autumn. The Welney lagoons provide a safe retreat when the Wash muds are underwater. Watching these cautious fowl returning from the cost under a Peter Scott sky is most impressive. Flights arrive at speed and very high, each group led by splendid drakes. Yet elegant as they are, pintail are well capable of battling with the stormiest days. Their sojourn at Welney is brief.

From November onwards little more than 200 remain. Long-distance travellers, the fens are a staging post on the flyway to Portugal, Spain and north-west Africa.

History of the appearance of pintail in the fens is well documented. It has been an annual event for almost half a century. However, times of arrival have changed. During the early years of colonisation the birds were rarely seen before December with the largest influx seldom putting in an appearance before mid-January.

Few pintail have been caught for ringing in Norfolk. In the 1970s Nacton decoy near Ipswich was successfully worked and many were lured into the decoy pipes for ringing purposes. In fact, according to Ticehurst's History of the Birds of Suffolk during 18 years in the latter part of the last century 28,000 ducks were taken there. Fritton Decoy near Lowestoft took a similar toll.

Pintail wintering here come from Iceland and Scandinavia. In the former Soviet Union it is extremely common and 'quite the most abundant of surface-feeding ducks'.

Despite wildfowling, ringing recoveries reveal individual pintail can be long-lived. Eight years after banding at Nacton, autumn ringed birds were recovered in the Kalinin district of Russia followed by a 10-year example shot in Bulgaria and an 11-year bird in the Karelia district. Also two Nacton autumn pintail apparently wintered in Italy.

Pintail began courtship displays early in the new year. Each performance begins with several drakes crowding round a single duck against a background of soft calls.

Suddenly one and then another drake rears his breast out of the water. Settling again, the bill is flicked through the water and a shower of spray directed towards the duck.

Second part of the display quickly follows: each drake stretches his neck upwards and backwards, raising his tail out of the water in an apparent attempt to touch his tail with the back of his head.

But if the performance is disturbed, every tail goes down at once.

By Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.