Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Why winter is a time to savour small pleasures


One of the compensations of the cold months in this country for anyone who enjoys the natural world is the great arrival from the north of wintering wildfowl, of wild ducks, wild swans, and above all, wild geese. Britain is a winter haven for hundreds of thousands of these waterbirds which breed in what the naturalist and writer Mark Cocker calls "the crown of the planet" – the halo of land around the Earth's northern latitudes, below the Arctic, from Canada, through Greenland, Iceland, Northern Scandinavia, Siberia, and back to Canada again.

In summer the empty tundra here is ideal for nesting and raising young, with little disturbance and few predators, but in the winter it is locked up tight in ice; wildfowl have to flee south to survive, to warmer regions such as the British Isles where there are ice-free estuaries and snow-free farmland.

Wild geese, especially, are notable visitors as they appear to be growing in numbers – bucking the trend of worldwide wildlife decline – and their autumn arrivals are becoming ever more dramatic. Last October as many as 40,000 barnacle geese arrived on the Scottish island of Islay, after a 2,000-mile flight from Greenland, and as a record 28,000 of them congregated in one place, the RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart; more than 7,000 Greenland white-fronted geese reached Islay at the same time. But even these numbers are dwarfed by the dark clouds of pink-footed geese from Iceland which now fill the winter skies of north Norfolk; there may be as many as a quarter of a million of these hefty, dog-sized birds in total and their vast 20,000-strong yelping flocks provide one of Europe's greatest wildlife spectacles. If you can't get to Holkham, or The Wash, there are a number of videos on YouTube which will give you a vivid idea of just how astonishing this phenomenon has become.

Yet spectacle isn't everything. Last weekend I had a winter wildfowl encounter at the opposite end of the size and drama spectrum, which was memorable. The species in question was the teal, which is the smallest British duck – indeed, it is the smallest duck in Europe – and the location was the River Thames in London.

Teal have for centuries been a celebrated quarry of wildfowlers, because they fly so fast and shoot straight up off the water. (The collective noun for them is "a spring" of teal.) But unless you're a keen birder who goes out to lakes and estuaries, you won't often see them, even though we get about 200,000 wintering birds from the Baltic region. (Only a couple of thousand pairs are resident and breed here).

Teal are not your duckpond sort of duck and they're not really your urban river sort of duck either, but the part of the Thames where I saw them bids fair to be wild, even within London, and this is the stretch upstream of Kew Bridge, where the river flows between two great estates – the Royal Botanic Gardens on the eastern side, and Syon Park, home of the Dukes of Northumberland, on the west. Biking along the river between them, as I was, you could be deep in the countryside.

The river was dropping, exposing its gravel shoulders, and in a small bay I saw a diminutive grey duck with a chestnut head and a dark green eye patch. I realised at once it was a drake teal; he had his plain brown duck with him, and the pair of them were in the shallows at the water's edge, sifting the gravel in their beaks for invertebrates. Something about them I found enormously attractive. I think it was partly their subtle colours; partly the fact that they weren't very common; but I also realised, as I watched them feeding unconcerned, 50ft away, it was partly their very size.

Small things seem to carry within them some strange attraction of their own. We can see it in human artefacts: think of cottages; the Mini (the car); model villages; dolls' houses. And smallness seems to exude a similar magnetism for us in the natural world. Who wouldn't be fascinated by the bee hummingbird of Cuba, the smallest bird on the planet, smaller than a thumb? Yet the attraction of smallness is relative, not absolute.

For the bee hummingbird is the size of a largish beetle, and in a beetle, these dimensions would seem unremarkable; so it is clear that what charms us really is something which is a miniaturised version of something else – something which is generally familiar, but smaller than we expect.

Why this should be so I have no idea, but I certainly felt it with the teal, and I felt it more and more as in the next bay I saw another pair, then another, then another. Swimming next to mallards, as they occasionally were, they looked like tugs next to oil tankers – ducks for a smaller world.

All along the river there were teal feeding in the gravel at the water's edge, in what seemed to be very contented pairs, and by the time the gravel ran out, at Isleworth, I had counted 76 of them.

They'll be gone soon, off to Sweden or Lithuania or wherever for the summer. I felt privileged to have seen them in west London, even though it was a very un-wild-geese-like encounter, without a scrap of drama or spectacle, in fact, it was entirely everyday and humdrum, and devoid of anything to grip you, unless you are interested in the natural world; but if you are, you might have shared my view, biking home, that the pleasures of winter can be no less intense for being small.

Suggested Topics
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way


Florida mother launched a petition to ban the sale of the dolls

Arts and Entertainment

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front end web developer - URGENT CONTRACT

£250 - £300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT** Our...

Year 3 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 Teachers - Chelm...

ABAP Developer

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ampersand Consulting LLP: SAP ABAP Developer - Rugb...

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?